WASHINGTON — The Justice Department filed its first criminal charges related to the BP oil spill Tuesday, accusing a former company engineer of destroying records requested by prosecutors investigating the deadly 2010 oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history.
Kurt Mix, 50, of Katy, Texas, was charged with two counts of obstruction of justice in a complaint unsealed in New Orleans.
Mix, a drilling engineer who worked on BP’s effort to estimate the amount of oil leaking from the blown-out Deepwater Horizon rig, allegedly deleted 300 text messages with a company supervisor detailing how BP’s controversial program to stop the leak – “Top Kill” – was failing.
Included in the information Mix allegedly deleted, according to court documents, were estimates that oil was flowing at a rate of 15,000 barrels per day.
“At the time, BP’s public estimate of the flow rate was 5,000 (barrels per day),” prosecutors said in court documents.
Before the Top Kill program started, Mix and other engineers had concluded that the effort was unlikely to succeed if the flow rate was greater than 15,000 barrels per day, according to court documents.
If convicted, Mix faces a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 on each count.
BP issued a statement saying it is cooperating with the Department of Justice and other investigations into the spill. BP “had clear policies requiring preservation of evidence in this case and has undertaken substantial and ongoing efforts to preserve evidence,” the statement said.
The charges were filed by the Justice Department’s Deepwater Horizon Task Force, based in New Orleans. The task force’s investigation is continuing.
The Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20, 2010, killing 11 men and unleashing an environmental disaster with the eventual spilling of 200 million gallons of oil.
The flow rate – or amount of oil gushing from the damaged well – was a hotly debated issue from the earliest days of the disaster, said Aaron Viles, deputy director of the Gulf Restoration Network, a New Orleans-based environmental group.
Estimates provided by BP officials and approved by federal officials were vigorously challenged by independent monitors, he said.
The criminal charges unsealed Tuesday show that BP officials knew what environmentalists were saying all along: There was more oil flowing into the Gulf than BP and government officials let on, Viles said. He said he hopes more charges are pending for higher-up BP executives.
“It was clear to anyone who knew flow rates that those estimates didn’t make sense,” Viles said. “We certainly feel vindicated.”
Orange Beach, Ala., Mayor Tony Kennon agreed.
“This validates our claim all along: They were not being honest, they were not being forthright, and they were not doing the right thing from Day One,” he said.
Kennon said he was happy to hear of the charges but hopes federal investigators implicate higher BP officials in any cover-up. The city’s tourist-driven economy lost half of its annual revenue during the spill, he said.
“To me, it shows the arrogance of a large corporation like this and what I would consider an incestuous relationship between it and Washington, D.C., to think they can get away with this,” Kennon said.
George Barisich, a St. Bernard Parish oyster harvester and shrimper and board member of the Louisiana Shrimp Association, said the charges are good news for folks looking for the deeper truths of the spill – but shouldn’t come as a surprise.
“This is just proof positive that they knew what they were doing, they knew they were taking a risk,” Barisich said. He added: “It was just a matter of time before they arrested somebody. My concern is that they’re going to try to keep the blame from the higher-ups.”
The criminal charges won’t impact a recent settlement reached between BP and a group of plaintiff attorneys, said Robert Wiygul, an Ocean Springs, Miss., environmental attorney whose firm represents fishermen and business owners in the ongoing litigation. That settlement, estimated at nearly $8 billion by BP and involving tens of thousands of plaintiffs, still needs approval from U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier.
But the new charges could affect future litigation, including liability hearings, which could propel BP’s costs for federal environmental fines and punitive damages into the tens of billions of dollars, he said.
“Any kind of criminal activity associated with a person or company seriously affects their credibility,” Wiygul said. “When you’re in court, credibility is what it’s all about.”