Lawmakers say repeal needed of 90-year-old law limiting liability in high seas' deaths

CHALMETTE, La. (AP) — Members of Congress vowed Monday to amend a 90-year-old law that limits the amount of money survivors can recover in the deaths of family members killed in the Gulf of Mexico oil rig explosion.

Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., and other members of the House Energy and Commerce committee said the April 20 Deepwater Horizon explosion exposed the need to reform the 1920 Death on the High Seas Act, which limits liability for wrongful deaths more than three miles offshore.

"One way we can hurt BP is to make sure that 'BP' stand for 'Bills Paid,' that the money for families, the money to cleanup the Gulf comes out of their pocket, and that we repeal the Death on the High Seas Act," Markey said.

"My family can never and will never be adequately compensated for our loss," said Courtney Kemp of Jonesville, La., whose husband was killed in the April 20 explosion. "What I am seeking is accountability from the wrongdoers who caused this terrible tragedy."

Kemp, 26, and Natalie Roshto, 21, of Liberty, Miss., told lawmakers that the maritime law unfairly limits how much money companies must pay in employee deaths at sea. Their husbands, Shane Roshto, 22, and Roy Wyatt Kemp, 27, both worked for Transocean Ltd., which owned the Deepwater Horizon oil rig that exploded April 20, killing 11 men.

BP PLC operated the rig, which under maritime law was considered an ocean-going vessel and registered under the flag of the Marshall Islands, a small island chain in the Pacific Ocean.

It was unclear whether Congress could repeal the law on maritime deaths retroactively, and whether any changes would apply in the Gulf.

But Markey said Congress had an obligation to fix the law.

"Your testimony is going to help to make it possible for us to repeal the Death on the High Seas Act, so that we never again have a situation like this," he told Roshto and Kemp.

"We have thousands and thousands of people who are out on these rigs, out on the ocean. And there never was any intention for you and people like you not to be able to recover for your families," Markey said.

Rep. Charlie Melancon, D-La., called the law "egregious," while Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, said it might be "time to relook" at the law.

Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., chairman of the oversight and investigations subcommittee, said Monday's field hearing was intended to draw attention to the local effects of the oil spill, which remains uncapped and is the largest in U.S. history. Nine lawmakers — seven Democrats and two Republicans — attended the four-hour hearing at the St. Bernard Parish government building near New Orleans.

In the weeks before the explosion, their husbands told them about problems they were having in controlling the well, Kemp and Roshto said.

"This well was different in the fact that they were having so many problems, and so many things were happening, and it was just kind of out of hand," said Kemp. Her husband had worked on the Deepwater rig for more than four years.

Roshto, whose husband also had worked on the rig for four years, said he was especially worried about "all the mud they were losing" from the well, and pressure the men felt to deliver oil more quickly.

Still, she and Kemp said their husbands took great pride in their jobs, and both said the United States should continue offshore drilling in the Gulf. They said new laws are not needed to regulate oil companies, but said better enforcement of existing laws was needed.

"This tragedy will not be in vain if it serves to make the lives of every man and woman working in the oilfield the top priority and cause the powerful oil companies to know that they will be held accountable for their actions," Roshto said.

Asked by Stupak what they would ask BP executives, if they could, both women answered, "Why?"

"What went wrong?" Roshto asked. "Why weren't you out there trying to do something in the weeks before when they were having problems?"

Kemp agreed, but added: "Why is it that money is more important than someone's life?"