Photo by AP Wideworld
Cleanup A worker picks up blobs of oil in Barataria Bay near the Gulf of Mexico after the spill.

A Sept. 4 decision by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana could clear the way for up to $18 billion in penalties for BP in its role in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster.

A strongly worded opinion from the court said that BP Exploration and Production Inc. was liable for "gross negligence" and "willful misconduct" in causing the blowout of the Macondo well and the destruction of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig.

A large penalty could be a boon to contractors and engineers in the Gulf region, industry officials say, but it could be months or even years before those funds become available.

BP has said it will appeal, which could significantly delay any penalties. In a statement, the firm said it believes the court's findings were "not supported by the evidence at trial. The law is clear that proving gross negligence is a very high bar that was not met in this case."

But the U.S. Justice Dept. is moving forward with a penalty-assessment trial, set for early 2015. "The court's ruling against BP will allow the United States to seek the maximum amount available under the Clean Water Act … with the vast majority going to the Gulf," said U.S. Associate Attorney General Tony West in a statement.

Under the Clean Water Act, the maximum civil penalty rises to $4,300 per barrel from $1,100 per barrel if the discharge was caused by gross negligence or willful misconduct. The RESTORE Act, signed into law in 2012, mandates that 80% of civil penalties recovered under the Clean Water Act go to states affected by the spill.

Local construction industry officials say their member firms would benefit from funds for the projects that already have been identified but still await funding.

Ken Naquin, president and CEO of the Associated General Contractors' Louisiana chapter, says the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers flood-protection work, which has been a source of steady work for contractors in the Gulf, is "ramping down."

Naquin says, "Coastal restoration [and] coastal protection [work] will certainly fill that void for our contractors."

Daniel Mobley, executive director of the Louisiana chapter of the American Council of Engineering Companies, says he is hopeful some funding will go for road and bridge projects to transport shellfish and other products out of the Gulf into other parts of the U.S., as well as coastal restoration and protection projects.

Mobley says state transportation officials are preparing a list of projects that could move forward. "We have plans, but we don't have the money to move forward with construction. So, we hope that some of this also finds its way over to the Dept. of Transportation," he says.

Mobley acknowledges that it could be a long time before engineering firms see any of those funds. "We just can't count on when it's going to come," he noted.