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The US Department of Justice has accused BP of "gross negligence and willful misconduct" over the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster.

According to its court filings, the department has cited several examples which hold the British company responsible for the largest oil spill in US history.

BP will face trial in the state of New Orleans in January 2013, and if the charges are proved, the company will be ordered to pay up to $21bn in civil damages under the Clean Water Act.

The court filings have come over two years after an explosion at Deepwater Horizon occured, killing 11 men and resulting in the release of 4.9m barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

According to the Justice Department, BP and Swiss-based Transocean, owner of the Deepwater Horizon platform, made errors in analysing a key pressure test of the Macondo well.

In a memo filed in the New Orleans federal court, DoJ lawyers said: "The behaviour, 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.

"Yet they were condoned in a corporation engaged in an activity that no less a witness than Tony Hayward [former BP chief executive] himself described as comparable to exploring outer space."

BP has denied claims of negligence and said in a statement that it "looks forward" to presenting evidence at the trial.

Image: An explosion at Deepwater Horizon occured in April 2010. Photo: courtesy of Gump Stump.