The Justice Department, which has been more active in closing cases than pursuing them lately, has accused BP of “gross negligence” in a court filing. The language has a very particular significance; if successful, BP would owe quadruple the amount of damages under the Clean Water Act, which could lead to a total of $21 billion in fines.

The U.S. government and BP are engaged in talks to settle civil and potential criminal liability, though neither side will comment on the status of negotiations.

“The behavior, words, and actions of these BP executives would not be tolerated in a middling size company manufacturing dry goods for sale in a suburban mall,” government lawyers wrote in the filing on Aug. 31 in federal court in New Orleans [...]

BP rejects the charge. “BP believes it was not grossly negligent and looks forward to presenting evidence on this issue at trial in January,” the company said in a statement. A Transocean spokesman had no immediate comment.

The filing has to do with a separate settlement, before the same judge, between BP and 125,000 individuals of the Gulf Coast, for $7.8 billion. BP states in that settlement that their actions “did not constitute gross negligence or willful misconduct.” The Justice Department wants the judge to invalidate that part of the settlement as prejudicial, and leave open that ruling until the government trial in January of next year.

This could merely be a negotiating tactic. Talks between BP and DoJ are underway for a settlement that would avoid trial. Given prior history, that’s the way I’d expect this to go. But the government does not want BP to enter into an agreement that minimizes their culpability for the Deepwater Horizon spill, as it would bolster the oil company’s negotiating stance.

Meanwhile, we continue to see the effects of that spill in the Gulf:

Old oil has washed up on some Louisiana beaches after Hurricane Isaac and officials are testing whether it’s left over from BP”s Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010.

Officials late Tuesday restricted fishing in waters extending a mile off a roughly 13-mile stretch of coastline.

BP is of course saying it’s too early to assign blame for this latest batch of oil. Given how much they spilled into the body of water, however, it’s a pretty safe bet.