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NEW ORLEANS -- More than a year and half after the Deepwater Horizon explosion that cost 11 workers their lives and spilled oil into the Gulf of Mexico for months, the federal government is preparing the first criminal charges. The felony charges could be announced in early 2012.
According to a report by The Wall Street Journal, federal prosecutors are focused on several BP plc engineers based in Houston. At least one of those is reported to be a supervisor. The report adds that prosecutors assert the employees may have provided false information to regulators about the risks associated with the Gulf of Mexico well while its drilling was in progress. The newspaper cites unnamed people familiar with the matter.
The charges could involve providing false information in federal documents. Conviction on such a charge carries a penalty of up to five years in prison in addition to a fine.
However, the U.S. Department of Justice still could decide not to bring charges against the individuals, people familiar with the situation told the WSJ. It's not unusual for prosecutors to use the threat of charges to pressure people to cooperate in investigations
As for the British company itself, legal experts say BP is expected to face broader criminal charges, including violations of the federal Clean Water Act. The company is already appealing what could amount to $36.6 million in administrative fines levied by U.S. regulators for safety violations. The size of the fines hasn't been finalized, the newspaper added.
BP spokesman Daren Beaudo declined to comment on the potential for charges against employees or the company. The company has said it believed the accident was caused by a combination of events that involved multiple parties, not just BP. A Justice Department spokeswoman also declined to comment.
A federal task force out of New Orleans has spent the past 18 months investigating the April 2010 accident. The investigation has included thousands of documents and prosecutors have conducted dozens of interviews, including bringing some individuals before a grand jury, people close to the investigation to the WSJ.