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Time for BP's Fantasy to Turn Into Payback for the Gulf

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What's the difference between BP paying $5.4 billion to repair the epic mess it created along the Gulf Coast and the $21 billion check it should write? Two words: "grossly negligent."

Headed toward a court date with BP in early 2013, the U.S. Department of Justice is building its case that BP knew enough to have avoided the worst human-caused oil spill in history. The government points to the horrific breakdowns in safety and accountability that led to the blast as reasons to rule BP "grossly negligent" in its activity, a designation that would warrant a $4,300 fine for every barrel spilled. BP will be fined either way, but this gross negligence is the difference between $5.4 billion and $21 billion in Clean Water Act penalties.

Despite the constant stream of scientific reports showing that all is not right in the gulf, the company continues to trot out likable employee spokespeople as the front men and women in a slick propaganda campaign. They'd have you believe that the all-clear signal has been sounded along the Gulf Coast. The gulf is undergoing "a robust recovery," according to BP's court filings.

The marketing geniuses seem to know something scientists don't. Over the past year, evidence has emerged that BP oil and the dispersants applied in unprecedented quantities have done mortal damage. The spill has killed areas of deep-sea coral, led to the deaths of bottlenose dolphins, harmed plankton (a vital link in the ocean food chain), decimated bird nesting habitat, poisoned endangered sea turtles and accelerated marsh erosion in a place where every inch of wetland is a precious barrier to sea level rise. Commercial seafood species are still in trouble. In some areas, oyster beds have yet to recover, and shrimpers are reporting shrimp without eyeballs and fish covered in red lesions.

The restoration dollars coming from BP's fines will go to repair the shattered ecosystems and communities of the gulf. This restoration will rebuild barrier islands and marshes, restoring a resilient natural ecosystem that can take care of its own.

For a regional economy so reliant on natural resources, this restoration is necessary for the bottom line. Put simply, environmental restoration is economic restoration. By restoring and protecting the gulf, we can sustain communities and create jobs.

But this all comes back to BP. In July, Congress made history by passing the RESTORE Act, a landmark law that, for the first time, dedicates the vast majority of Clean Water Act penalties back to the region where the damage was done. With 80 percent of those penalties going to Gulf Coast states for restoration thanks to the RESTORE Act, this is a big deal. So was the fact that this was the rarest of Washington actions, a bipartisan agreement.

The next step is to ensure that the Clean Water Act fines equal the unprecedented nature of this spill -- and that the money flows quickly. Whether that happens through a settlement or through a full trial, it should happen soon, and the penalties should be equal to the crime.

"Grossly negligent" just begins to describe BP's recklessness. But that's the right description when you look at the toll BP took in lives, to the local economies and to the ecosystems that will testify to the damage caused to America's Gulf Coast.

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