First Gulf Oil Spill Arrest: Former BP Engineer Charged

NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana, April 24, 2012 (ENS) – In the first criminal charges to be laid as a result of a federal investigation into the BP/Deepwater Horizon oil spill, a former BP engineer was arrested today on charges of intentionally destroying evidence requested by federal criminal authorities.

Kurt Mix, 50, of Katy, Texas, is charged with two counts of obstruction of justice in a criminal complaint filed in the Eastern District of Louisiana and unsealed today.

“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,” said U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

President Barack Obama flies over the oil-stained Gulf of Mexico in Marine One. June 4, 2010. (Photo courtesy The White House)

“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,” Holder said.

At the time of the explosion, BP was leasing the Deepwater Horizon oil rig to drill an exploratory well at a water depth of 5,000 feet in the Macondo Prospect, about 41 miles off the Louisiana coast.

According to the affidavit in support of a criminal complaint and arrest warrant, on April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon rig experienced an uncontrolled blowout and related explosions while finishing the Macondo well.

The catastrophe killed 11 men on board the Deepwater Horizon and resulted in the largest environmental disaster in U.S. history and the largest accidental marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry.

An estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil spewed from the ruptured well over a three month period, contaminating a wide area of the Gulf and polluting the coasts of five states: Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida and Texas.

The mobile offshore drilling unit Q4000 positioned directly over the damaged Deepwater Horizon blowout preventer as crews work to plug the wellhead using a technique known as “top kill,” May 26, 2010. (Photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Patrick Kelley courtesy USCG)

According to court documents, Mix was a drilling and completions project engineer for BP. Following the blowout, Mix worked on internal BP efforts to estimate the amount of oil leaking from the well and was involved in various efforts to stop the leak.

Those efforts included, among others, Top Kill, the failed BP effort to pump heavy mud into the blown out wellhead to try to stop the oil flow.

BP sent numerous notices to Mix requiring him to retain all information concerning the entire incident, including his text messages.

On or about October 4, 2010, after Mix learned that his electronic files were to be collected by a vendor working for BP’s lawyers, Mix allegedly deleted on his iPhone a text string containing more than 200 text messages with a BP supervisor.

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.

In court documents, the U.S. government alleges 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.”

Dispersing oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill creates a visible line in the Gulf of Mexico, May 26, 2010. (Photo by USCG Petty Officer 3rd Class Patrick Kelley courtesy U.S. Coast Guard)

Before Top Kill began, 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.

At the time, BP’s public estimate of the flow rate was 5,000 barrels of oil per day – three times lower than the minimum flow rate indicated in Mix’s text.

In addition, on or about August 19, 2011, after learning that his iPhone was about to be imaged by a vendor working for BP’s outside counsel, Mix 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.

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 Deepwater Horizon Task Force, based in New Orleans, is supervised by Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer and led by Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Buretta, who serves as director of the task force.

The Deepwater Horizon Task Force includes prosecutors from the Criminal Division and the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the Department of Justice, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Louisiana and other U.S. Attorney’s Offices, and investigating agents from the FBI, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Interior, the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other federal law enforcement agencies.

The task force’s investigation of this and other matters concerning the Deepwater Horizon disaster is ongoing.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2012. All rights reserved.