guardian.co.uk, Friday 30 April 2010 22.49 BST
Britain's biggest oil company was tonight facing an environmental disaster expected to cost more than the Exxon Valdez tanker spill as thousands of tonnes of floating oil began to reach the US Gulf coast.
As several coastal states declared a state of emergency and dispatched clean-up crews, BP was desperately trying to stem not just the flow of crude from its damaged offshore platform but also to snuff out a growing political storm that has wiped billions of pounds off its share price.
President Barack Obama tonight sent officials from the US Department of Justice to monitor the company's handling of the crisis, while lawyers acting for victims of two earlier BP disasters in the US called for criminal charges and a ban on its activities there.
Fadel Gheit, an oil analyst at Oppenheimer & Co in New York, said the ultimate costs of dealing with the slick could rival that of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, which led to $3.5bn in clean-up costs and $5bn in legal and financial settlements. "This is a real pickle – it's a really challenging one. It's going to be difficult to choke off this spew of oil. Any solution is going to take time and I really think the cost here is going to be in the billions of dollars," he said.
Eleven offshore workers are missing, presumed dead, after the initial explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig last week, and BP was also severely reprimanded by safety authorities for a pipeline leak in Alaska and fatal refinery explosion.
The scale of the legal backlash facing BP was outlined by Brent Coon & Associates, an American law firm that played a large role in bringing cases against BP for the Texas City refinery fire in 2005. Today it filed a lawsuit on behalf of a rig worker injured in last week's blast, and argued that criminal charges should be brought against the company for its repeated failure to act after a series of industrial accidents in the US.
"They don't learn their lessons, they are the most arrogant bunch of bastards I've ever dealt with," said lawyer Brent Coon. "It's like they just don't care. At some point, we are going to have to put some of these executives in jail and withdraw their right to exploit our natural resources."