NEW ORLEANS – Federal prosecutors brought the first criminal charges Tuesday in the Gulf oil spill, accusing a former BP engineer of deleting more than 300 text messages that indicated the blown-out well was spewing far more crude than the company was telling the public at the time.
Two years and four days after the drilling-rig explosion that set off the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history, Kurt Mix, 50, of Katy, Texas, was arrested and charged with two counts of obstruction of justice for allegedly destroying evidence.
The U.S. Justice Department made it clear that the investigation is still going on and suggested that more people could be arrested.
Federal investigators have been looking into the causes of the blowout and the actions of managers, engineers and rig workers at BP and its subcontractors Halliburton and Transocean in the days and hours before the April 20, 2010, explosion.
But the case against Mix focuses only on the aftermath of the blast, when BP scrambled for weeks to plug the leak. Even then, the charges are not really about the disaster itself, but about an alleged attempt to thwart the investigation into it.
In court papers, the FBI said one of the areas under investigation is whether the oil company intentionally lowballed the amount of crude spewing from the well.
In outlining the charges, the government suggested Mix knew the rate of flow from the busted well was much greater than the company publicly acknowledged.
Prosecutors also said BP gave the public an optimistic account of its May 2010 efforts to plug the well via a technique called a “top kill,” even though the company’s internal data and some of the text messages showed the operation was likely to fail.
An accurate flow-rate estimate is necessary to determine how much in penalties BP and its subcontractors could face under the Clean Water Act.
Mix, who resigned from BP in January, appeared on Tuesday afternoon before a judge in Houston, shackled at his hands and feet, and was released on $100,000 bail. His attorney had no comment afterward. If convicted, Mix could get up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine on each count.