WASHINGTON, D.C.—Seventy-one difficult, painful days have passed since the enormous disaster in the Gulf began, and with every day that goes by, the economic and environmental damage grows worse and worse. While we don’t know the exact number, experts estimate that up to 6.9 million barrels of oil have spewed into the Gulf, wreaking havoc on coastal communities, workers’ livelihoods, and fragile wetlands. At the very heart of this — the greatest environmental catastrophe in American history — is a very human tragedy.
The explosion that occurred on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig on April 20th killed 11 workers and injured 17. Since then, at least two spill response workers have been killed on the job. Like so many working men and women in the Gulf region and in communities across America, they took pride in their jobs and in providing for their families, even if their work was not always appreciated or understood by outsiders.
For the survivors and loved ones, some of whom are here today, the nightmare is far from over. Livelihoods have disappeared and the fabric binding these families together has been torn, leaving a terrible sense of loss and incredible uncertainty. I am deeply disturbed by reports that different families will have access to different relief depending on their loved ones’ jobs and where they were killed.
It is my understanding today that Transocean, the owner of the Deepwater Horizon, is seeking to limit its liability for this loss in federal court under a legal loophole that is both unconscionable and outdated. Transocean’s cold and calculated effort to avoid taking full responsibility for their actions – or inaction – shines a bright light on a serious problem: a lack of accountability and equal treatment under the law. We cannot allow that to continue.
There are three simple questions that I hope we can answer at today’s hearing:
- Do our maritime laws need to be updated?
- Are all injured parties being treated fairly under these laws and do the distinctions that allow for people to be treated differently make sense?
- Are the parties responsible for causing the harm being held fully accountable or are they using outdated laws to escape paying their fair share?
Let me be clear: Employers whose negligence causes an employee’s or anyone else’s death should be held fully accountable for the pain and suffering they cause regardless of where their death takes place. Companies that do harm should not be able to hide behind statutes from 1851 to avoid paying for the harm they have caused. And the courts should have the power to make an example of a company that disregards its workers’ safety.
I firmly believe a consistent culture of workplace safety must form the bedrock of any serious, responsible industry. Whether you’re operating a rig in the Gulf or a mine in the coalfields of West Virginia, these core principles depend on businesses doing the right thing, and governments enforcing the law. That cannot be allowed to change simply depending on where the work is done.
Today’s hearing is an important opportunity to hear from you, the families who have been affected so painfully by this awful disaster. You have our nation’s heartfelt sympathy. We want to honor your loved ones’ sacrifice and make conditions safer for all workers. Your voice today, and in the weeks and months ahead is absolutely essential.
Thank you for being here and for sharing your stories with the Committee today. I know it cannot be easy. Please know that the Committee will continue to work on these issues to make sure workers and their families get the protections they deserve, and to make sure those who cause the harm are held fully accountable. We have a fundamental obligation to bring real accountability and fairness to a system where it has been sorely missing. You have my commitment that we will do that.