Federal prosecutors in Brazil have filed criminal charges against 17 Chevron and Transocean company executives over an oil leak in the Atlantic Ocean in November 2011.
Prosecutors on Wednesday accused the executives of environmental crimes, of misleading Brazil's oil regulator about their safety plans and not providing accurate information in the wake of the spill.
"Chevron will vigorously defend the company and its employees."
- Kurt Glaubitz, Chevron spokesperson
At least 416,000 litres of oil seeped through cracks on the ocean floor near a Chevron appraisal well off the Rio de Janeiro coast.
The well drilled by Transocean has since been sealed, but a small amount of seepage has re-appeared in recent days, raising concerns that the damage is not yet over.
Chevron were initially fined $27 million for the oil spill by the Brazilian government in December 2011.
The charges come as Brazil works to develop massive offshore oil fields discovered in recent years that hold upward of 50 billion barrels of oil.
The federal prosecutors' office in Rio de Janeiro said in an emailed statement that the two companies and 17 of its executives had been charged with "crimes against the environment."
If found guilty, the executives could face up to 31 years in prison.
"Everything indicates that Chevron was imprudent and that area should not have been developed,'' said Carlos Minc, the environment minister for Rio de Janeiro state.
A judge will decide if the case will go to trial, which would be a lengthy process given the number of defendants, the complexity of the case and the Brazilian legal system's room for numerous appeals.
'Charges are outrageous'
Chevron said after the November leak that it had underestimated the pressure in an underwater reservoir, so that crude rushed up a bore hole and eventually escaped into the surrounding seabed about 370kms off Rio's coast.
The oil escaped through at least seven narrow fissures on the ocean floor, all within 50 metres of the well head.
"These charges are outrageous and without merit. Once all the facts are fully examined, they will demonstrate that Chevron and its employees responded appropriately and responsibly to the incident," said Kurt Glaubitz, Chevron's spokesman. "Chevron will vigorously defend the company and its employees."
Prosecutors have asked for all the assets of those charged be seized, that each person be fined $555,555 and each company $5.6 million.
Among those charged on Wednesday with environmental crimes are six US citizens, five Brazilians, two French and Australian nationals, one Briton and one Canadian.
They include the heads of the Brazilian subsidiaries of both Chevron and Transocean. A judge ruled late last week that none of the executives could leave Brazil.
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