Federal prosecutors have arrested a former BP engineer for intentionally destroying key evidence detailing how much oil was spewing into the Gulf of Mexico from the blownout Macondo Well in the early, chaotic days of the disaster in the spring of 2010.
The criminal complaint unsealed Tuesday charges 50-year-old engineer Kurt Mix with two counts of obstruction of justice for deleting hundreds of text messages from his iPhone, the most damning of which indicates that the flow rate from the runaway well in late May 2010 was more than three times higher than the company had officially disclosed to the public and the federal government.
The consequences could be severe. Mr. Mix, of Katy, Texas, could face up to 20 years in prison and up to $500,000 in fines.
Prosecutors suggested that more arrests could be on the way.
From an April 24 New York Times report by Clifford Krauss:
According to an affidavit filed with the criminal complaint, Mr. Mix, a drilling and completions project engineer for BP, was involved in efforts to monitor and stop the oil leaking from the well following the accident.
In October 2010, despite notices from BP that he had to retain all information concerning the well, Mr. Mix deleted a string of more than 200 text messages with a BP supervisor, the complaint said.
Some of the messages, the complaint said, indicated that a company effort to stop the leak in the early days of the spill – a procedure known as a top kill – was failing, in part because the company’s internal estimate of the amount of oil flowing from the well was greater than 15,000 barrels a day [despite the fact that BP had publicly disclosed that the rate was only 5,000 barrels a day].
The complaint said Mr. Mix deleted additional text messages when he learned that the contents of his iPhone were about to be copied by a vendor working for BP lawyers.
My guess is we’ll see additional obstruction-of-justice arrests in the coming days and weeks, and they may not be limited to BP employees. However, it remains to be seen if federal officials will take prosecutions to the next level by filing charges against individuals for actually causing the disaster (as opposed to lesser charges of destroying evidence in an effort to obstruct federal investigations). More from the New York Times:
“It is no surprise that the Justice Department would bring obstruction of justice charges if they believe that BP officials attempted to hide information about the size of the spill,” said David Uhlmann, a law professor at the University of Michigan Law School and former head of the Justice Department’s environmental crimes section. “But today’s charges leave unanswered the larger question of whether any of the companies involved and any individuals will be criminally charged with causing the worst accidental oil spill in history.”
We’ll see what further arrests come to pass, but I commend the Justice Department for its (apparent) new-found commitment to holding not only BP, the corporation, but also specific BP employees accountable.
Consider this from an April 19 New York Times op-ed (published days before this initial arrest) by Abrahm Lustgarten, a reporter for Pro Publica:
What is missing is the accountability that comes from real consequences: a criminal prosecution that holds responsible the individuals who gambled with the lives of BP’s contractors and the ecosystem of the Gulf of Mexico. Only such an outcome can rebuild trust in an oil industry that asks for the public’s faith so that it can drill more along the nation’s coastlines. And perhaps only such an outcome can keep BP in line and can keep an accident like the Deepwater Horizon disaster from happening again.
And this from Mr. Lustgarten:
The problem… is that it is the slow pileup of factors that causes an industrial disaster. Poor decisions are usually made incrementally by a range of people with differing levels of responsibility, and almost always behind a shield of plausible deniability. It makes it almost impossible to pin one clear-cut bad call on a single manager, which is partly why no BP official has ever been held criminally accountable.
Instead, the corporation is held accountable. It isn’t clear that charging the company repeatedly with misdemeanors and felonies has accomplished anything.
With the arrest yesterday of Mr. Mix, we seem to be moving toward the kind of real criminal accountability that may result in real change in the way oil companies operate.
We’ll keep you up to date so stay tuned.
Read the New York Times report by Clifford Krauss here: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/25/business/energy-environment/engineer-charged-in-bp-spill-case.html
Read the New York Times op-ed by Mr. Lustgarten here: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/20/opinion/a-stain-that-wont-wash-away.html?pagewanted=2&_r=1
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