Criminal charges filed in 2010 BP Gulf oil spill
WASHINGTON (CNN) — The first criminal charges have been filed in connection with the BP Gulf of Mexico oil disaster two years ago, the Justice Department said Tuesday.
Former BP engineer Kurt Mix was arrested in Texas on two counts of intentionally destroying evidence requested by authorities, specifically the alleged deletions of messages focusing on work to stem the oil flow.
Charges were filed in Louisiana against Mix, 50, of Katy Texas. He was scheduled to appear in a Houston courtroom at 3 p.m. EDT.
An estimated 4.9 million barrels (206 million gallons) of crude oil poured into the Gulf of Mexico after the April 2010 explosion that killed 11 men aboard the drill rig Deepwater Horizon, which eventually sank.
Oil spewed into the sea for nearly three months before a cap was placed on the BP-owned Macondo well, nearly a mile beneath the surface.
“The department has filed initial charges in its investigation into the Deepwater Horizon disaster against an individual for allegedly deleting records relating to the amount of oil flowing from the Macondo well after the explosion that led to the devastating tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico,” Attorney General Eric Holder said Tuesday.
“The Deepwater Horizon Task Force is continuing its investigation into the explosion and will hold accountable those who violated the law in connection with the largest environmental disaster in U.S. history.”
Mix, a drilling and completions BP project engineer, “worked on internal BP efforts to estimate the amount of oil leaking from the well,” the department said. He also had been “involved in various efforts to stop the leak,” including the unsuccessful “Top Kill” project “to pump heavy mud into the blown-out wellhead to try to stop the oil flow.”
BP told Mix to retain all information concerning Macondo, including his text messages.
But around October 4, 2010, Mix deleted from his iPhone a “text string containing more than 200 text messages with a BP supervisor” after he found out a vendor working for BP’s lawyers was to collect his “electronic files.”
“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 Justice Department said.
The court documents say Mix deleted one text from the end of the first day of Top Kill, on May 26, 2010, that said, “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,” the department said.
When Mix learned that a vendor working for BP’s outside counsel was about to image his iPhone last August, he “allegedly deleted a text string containing more than 100 text messages with a BP contractor with whom Mix had worked on various issues concerning how much oil was flowing from the Macondo well after the blowout.
“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 said.
Mix would face a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 on each count if he is convicted.
BP issued a statement Tuesday saying it “is cooperating with the Department of Justice and other official investigations into the Deepwater Horizon accident and oil spill.”
It added that it “had clear policies requiring preservation of evidence in this case and has undertaken substantial and ongoing efforts to preserve evidence.” It said it would have no comment on the allegations against Mix.