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What do you call a gigantic man-made disaster that is threatening to despoil the ecosystems and wreck the economies of the Gulf Coast? The answer is important, if you happen to be one of the companies responsible for it.
The massive slick spreading toward Louisiana has gone by several names since crude oil began gushing from a damaged drilling rig on April 20. Media accounts have referred to it as “the Gulf oil spill,” “the Deepwater Horizon spill” and the “Gulf Coast disaster.”
President Obama, leaving little doubt about whom he considers responsible for the epic mess, put a brand name on it in remarks in Louisiana on Sunday. The president dubbed it “the BP oil spill,” after the company (formerly British Petroleum) that leased the now-damaged drilling platform. The Environmental Protection Agency refers to it the same way in its official pronouncements.
The name of a disaster can be critical, both as a historic matter and the more immediate matters of image, public relations and legal liability. BP has said it will honor “legitimate” claims from people and businesses seeking compensation from disruption caused by the spill. But since there are likely to be many disputed claims (“This is America — come on,” BP chief executive Tony Hayward told the Times of London on Wednesday), having your company’s name inextricably linked to a disaster can’t help when a jury begins assigning damages.