The first criminal charges in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill were filed today by the Department of Justice, two years after the disaster began. Former BP engineer Kurt Mix was arrested today and charged with two counts of obstruction of justice for “intentionally destroying evidence,” according to the Department. The former engineer is from Katy, Texas. NPR broke the story earlier today.
Mix is alleged to have destroyed more than 200 text messages he sent to a BP supervisor about the company’s efforts to stop the leak and estimate how much oil was flowing out of it, despite being told by the company to preserve all of his communications. The Justice Department says that Mix deleted the messages in early October 2010 after learning they would be collected by BP’s lawyers. “The deleted texts, some of which were recovered forensically, included sensitive internal BP information collected in real-time as the Top Kill operation was occurring, which indicated that Top Kill was failing,” the department says in a press release.
“The Court documents allege that, among other things, Mix deleted a text he had sent on the evening of May 26, 2010, at the end of the first day of Top Kill. In the text, Mix stated, among other things, “Too much flowrate – over 15,000.” Before Top Kill commenced, Mix and other engineers had concluded internally that Top Kill was unlikely to succeed if the flow rate was greater than 15,000 barrels of oil per day (BOPD). At the time, BP’s public estimate of the flow rate was 5,000 BOPD – three times lower than the minimum flow rate indicated in Mix’s text.”
Mix is also accused of deleting 100 other text messages with a BP contractor. “By the time Mix deleted those texts, he had received numerous legal hold notices requiring him to preserve such data and had been communicating with a criminal defense lawyer in connection with the pending grand jury investigation of the Deepwater Horizon disaster,” the department says.
Mix faces up to twenty years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 if convicted.
A complaint is merely a charge and a defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
If convicted, Mix faces a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 as to each count. The case is being handled by a task force including Justice Department officials and prosecutors from District Courts in Louisiana and Pennsylvania.
Update — The New York Times provides some more context on today’s arrest:
“Officials suggested that there may be more prosecutions related to the April 20, 2010, explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig. The accident killed 11 workers and spilled millions of barrels of oil into the ocean over a period of months. The long-term effects of the spill on the environment are still being assessed.
BP, the London-based oil giant that owned the well, has already reached a multibillion-dollar settlement with lawyers representing individuals and businesses for economic losses and medical claims. But criminal prosecution is a slap to the company, which has tried to portray itself as doing everything it could to make amends for the tragedy. If criminal charges are eventually brought against the company itself, they carry the possibility of suspension or exclusion from government contracts.”