The U.S. Justice Department on Tuesday announced prosecutors have filed the first criminal charges against a former BP engineer in connection with the Deepwater Horizon oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.
The charges were filed against Kurt Mix, a former engineer for BP plc, who was arrested earlier in the day on charges of intentionally destroying evidence requested by federal criminal authorities investigating the oil leak.
Mix, 50, was charged with two counts of obstruction of justice in a criminal complaint filed in the Eastern District of Louisiana.
"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 Attorney General Eric Holder. "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."
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 and resulted in the largest environmental disaster in U.S. history.
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 Macondo, including his text messages.
On or about Oct. 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.
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 allegedly deleted other sensitive messages on his iPhone on or about Aug. 19, 2011. 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 dollars as to each count.