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The Deepwater Horizon spill began April 20, 2010 when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded above a BP well (Macondo) being drilled in mile-deep water. Over three months, 4.1 million barrels gushed into the Gulf of Mexico.

The scientific effort to understand the spill's impact is one of the largest research projects of its kind ever. It is tackling questions of liability that might not be answered for years.  But scientists say it's far too soon to make definitive conclusions about the scale and scope of the marine disturbances. Scientists disagree about the scale of deep-sea damage. This uncertainty, which may not be resolved for years, is paving the way for the next phase of the Deepwater Horizon disaster: an intense debate over the actual damage caused by the spill and who, if anyone, should pay.

The government has named several companies in addition to BP as potentially liable for paying environmental damages. They include Transocean Ltd., which owned the drilling rig, and two owners of minority stakes in the well—Anadarko Petroleum Corp. and an arm of Japan's Mitsui & Co., MOEX Offshore 2007 LLC.

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Federal law requires the U.S. government to document a spill's environmental damage—a process called a Natural Resource Damage Assessment—and requires companies found responsible to pay to fix the damage. If the government and the companies can't agree on a settlement, the fight can end up in court.

The long-term human toll is perhaps the hardest to gauge. The U.S. has launched a study to monitor 55,000 former cleanup workers for up to a decade, looking at everything from skin rashes to increased cancer risk. (WSJ, 4/13/2011)