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1st witness to testify in Gulf oil spill trial

, The Associated Press

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) - A University of California-Berkeley engineer who played a prominent role in investigating levee breeches in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina is scheduled to be the first witness Tuesday at a trial involving another Gulf Coast catastrophe: the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history.

Robert Bea, an expert witness for the plaintiffs who sued BP PLC and other companies involved in the Deepwater Horizon disaster, will share his theories about what caused BP's Macondo well to blow out on April 20, 2010, provoking an explosion on the Horizon rig that killed 11 workers and spewed an estimated 172 millions of gallons of crude into the Gulf.

Bea's testimony was scheduled for the second day of a civil trial that could result in the oil company and its partners being forced to pay billions of dollars more in damages. The case went to trial Monday after attempts to reach an 11th-hour settlement failed.

The second witness slated to appear is Lamar McKay, president of BP America. The high-ranking executive is likely to discuss corporate decisions that were made during the disaster. It was not clear if there would be time for his testimony Tuesday. Other BP officials were expected to give videotaped testimony.

In pretrial depositions and in a report, Bea argued along with another consultant that BP showed a disregard for safety throughout the company and was reckless — the same arguments made in opening statements Monday by attorneys for the U.S. government and individuals and businesses hurt by the spill.

Attorneys for BP tried to block Bea's testimony, accusing him of analyzing documents and evidence "spoon-fed" to him by plaintiffs lawyers. BP accused Bea and another expert, William Gale, a California-based fire and explosion investigator and consultant, of ignoring the "safety culture of the other parties" involved in the spill, in particular Transocean Ltd., the drilling company running operations aboard the Deepwater Horizon.

Gale does not appear on a list of potential witnesses.

Just last year, Bea testified for plaintiffs who sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over broken levees in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.

In the BP case, U.S. Justice Department attorney Mike Underhill said the catastrophe resulted from the company's "culture of corporate recklessness."

"The evidence will show that BP put profits before people, profits before safety and profits before the environment," Underhill said. "Despite BP's attempts to shift the blame to other parties, by far the primary fault for this disaster belongs to BP."

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