A federal judge in New Orleans granted final approval Monday to an estimated $20 billion settlement, resolving years of litigation over the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
The settlement, first announced in July, includes $5.5 billion in civil Clean Water Act penalties and billions more to cover environmental damage and other claims by the five Gulf states and local governments. The money is to be paid out over a 16-year period.
The judge, Carl Barbier, set the stage for the settlement with an earlier ruling that BP had been "grossly negligent" in the offshore rig explosion that killed 11 workers and caused a 134- million-gallon spill.
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The order came nearly five years to the day after an oil rig off the coast of Louisiana — the Deepwater Horizon — exploded, sending millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf. The spill ultimately spread across 43,000 miles, devastating the coast from Florida to Texas.
A report released last year by the National Wildlife Federation found that sea creatures were still struggling, if not dying in large numbers: in Louisiana, for instance, bottle-nose dolphins in 2014 were being found dead at four times the historic rate. Tens of thousands of small sea turtles known as Kemp’s ridley died after the disaster — and the number of nests in the region has only continued to plummet.
Fishermen suffered, too: fisheries were temporarily shut down, and under a previous settlement, BP agreed to pay billions in compensation. But some fishermen argued that the oil giant paid out unevenly, according to Reuters, while others remained in protracted disputes with the company. One longtime Louisiana shrimp fisherman, Phuong Nguyen, told NBC News last year that business was still uneven, and that the days of earning a six-figure income were long gone.
“I don’t have the money to retire,” he said.
Attorney General Loretta Lynch said in a statement Monday that the order was one more step toward helping make the region's economy whole and to correct “the worst environmental disaster in American history."
“BP is receiving the punishment it deserves, while also providing critical compensation for the injuries it caused to the environment and the economy of the Gulf region,” Lynch said.
In a statement, BP spokesman Geoff Morrell said: "We are pleased that the Court has entered the Consent Decree, finalizing the historic settlement announced last July."
The Associated Press
Tim Stelloh is a reporter for NBC News, based in California.