Responding to criticism that it hasn’t been forceful enough in its response to the largest oil spill in U.S. history, the Obama administration on Tuesday announced a criminal investigation into the deadly explosion and installed a no-nonsense Coast Guard admiral as the public face of the response, instead of BP.

The effect of the April 20 spill, including “oil for miles and miles” in the Gulf of Mexico , is “heartbreaking to see,” Attorney General Eric Holder said Tuesday afternoon during a visit to New Orleans . He also pledged not to forget the 11 lives lost in the explosion.

The nation has an obligation to “investigate what went wrong and to determine what reforms are needed so that we never have to experience a crisis like this again,” President Barack Obama said after meeting at the White House with the two men he’d appointed to head an inquiry into the blast.

“If our laws were broken, leading to this death and destruction, my solemn pledge is that we will bring those responsible to justice on behalf of the victims of this catastrophe and the people of the Gulf region,” Obama said.

The threshold for a criminal investigation on the part of the Justice Department has “certainly been passed,” Holder said, although he wouldn’t disclose the exact targets of the probe. However, prosecutors are looking at possible violations of the Clean Water Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the Endangered Species Act and the Oil Pollution Act.

Two companies, their employees and their practices are almost certainly at the heart of the investigation: BP, which owned the well and is responsible for the spill, and Transocean , which owned and operated the rig that exploded, caught fire and sank to the bottom of the sea.

“There are a wide range of possible violations under these statutes, and we will closely examine the actions of those involved in this spill,” Holder said at a briefing in New Orleans . “If we find evidence of illegal behavior, we will be forceful in our response. We will not rest until justice is done.”

The White House also worked to change the perception that, along with BP, the government hasn’t been forthcoming enough about the progress of the most recent containment effort, known as a “top kill.” Peeved that the company over the weekend downplayed the amount of oil that could be released in its next effort to contain the flow, the administration moved Tuesday to put an official face on the response: Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen , the national incident commander for the spill.

Source: Erika Bolstad and Lesley Clark for McClatchy Newspapers.

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