MIAMI — Federal prosecutors in states threatened by the sprawling Gulf oil spill are assisting the Justice Department in assessing environmental damage for possible legal action, the U.S. attorney in South Florida said Tuesday.
U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer said Tuesday that lawyers in his office's civil and criminal sections are monitoring the potential disaster along Florida's coast and sharing that information with Justice Department officials.
"The attorney general has commissioned a group to monitor the situation,'' Ferrer told a group of reporters. "Our office has been asked to assess the damage for potential down-the-road civil or criminal prosecutions.''
But Ferrer said the inquiry is in its early stages, stressing that the "No. 1 priority is the cleanup and preventing the leak.''
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At the end of April, President Barack Obama sent Justice Department investigators and military aircraft to the Gulf of Mexico in response to mounting fear of environmental damage along the Gulf states that may be caused by the BP oil rig explosion.
Attorney General Eric Holder said at the time that he had sent a team of Justice Department prosecutors to the Gulf Coast to monitor the unfolding disaster and determine whether any laws were broken in the operation of the rig or the response to the disaster.
Justice's Environment and Natural Resources Division is heading the inquiry into the BP rig explosion, which has been spewing an estimated 5,000 barrels of crude oil daily since late April.
On Monday, U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, and other members asked Holder to open an investigation into potential violations of civil and criminal laws related to the ongoing spill.
Eleven workers died when the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and then sank about 50 miles from Louisiana's coast.