Government Charges Former BP Engineer With Obstruction of Justice in Gulf Spill Case

Turn to the nation's most objective and informative daily environmental news resource to learn how the United States and key players around the world are responding to the environmental...

United States v. Mix, E.D. La., case number not available, 4/24/12

 

Key Development: The Justice Department charges a former BP engineer with destroying evidence requested for the federal criminal investigation of the Deepwater Horizon accident, oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

What's Next: A hearing for the defendant is scheduled for May 3 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana in New Orleans.

By Susanne Pagano  

HOUSTON--A former BP Plc engineer was arrested April 24 on charges that he intentionally deleted dozens of text messages to a supervisor relating to the Deepwater Horizon disaster response, including the amount of oil flowing from the damaged Macondo well following the April 2010 accident, prosecutors said (United States v. Mix, E.D. La., case number not available, 4/24/12).

A criminal complaint filed April 24 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana charged Kurt Mix of Katy, Texas, with two counts of obstruction of justice after he deleted more than 200 electronic text messages with a BP supervisor about the amount of oil leaking from the Gulf of Mexico well as the oil company tried a technique to stop the flow.

These are the first criminal charges brought by the Justice Department in connection with the Deepwater Horizon case.

Mix, who resigned from BP in January 2012, was a drilling and completions project engineer for BP and worked on the company's efforts to estimate the amount of oil leaking from the well and stop the leak including the unsuccessful “top kill” operation, according to court documents.

After Mix learned in October 2010 that his electronic files were to be collected by an outside vendor retained by BP's attorneys, he allegedly deleted a text string containing messages with his supervisor, some of which were recovered forensically, prosecutors said.

Court documents further alleged that, among other things, Mix deleted on May 26, 2010, the first day of the top kill exercise, a text in which he said, “Too much flowrate--over 15,000,” which indicated that the flow was three times BP's public estimate of a 5,000 barrels of oil per day and that the effort would not likely succeed, the Justice Department said.

Additionally, on Aug. 19, 2011, Mix allegedly deleted a text string containing more than 100 text messages with a BP contractor regarding spill response after learning that his iPhone was about to be imaged by a vendor working for BP's outside counsel.

Affidavit Details.

According to an affidavit filed in court by FBI Special Agent Barbara O'Donnell, Mix received his first “legal hold notice” two days after the accident, advising him to retain all records relevant to the Macondo well incident, including “instant and text messaging documents.”

Over the following two months, Mix received five additional legal hold notices.

In the affidavit, O'Donnell said there is probable cause to believe that on two or three separate dates, “Mix did knowingly and corruptly alter, destroy, mutilate, and conceal a record, document, or other object, and attempted to do so, with the intent to impair the object's integrity and availability for use in an official proceeding….”

BP terminated the unsuccessful top kill effort on May 29, 2010.

The Justice Department launched a criminal investigation into the oil spill on June 1, 2010.

An estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil leaked into the Gulf after the explosion that killed 11 workers on Transocean's rig Deepwater Horizon. The well was permanently sealed with cement in September 2010.

BP Responds to Criminal Complaint.

In a statement, BP said it had “clear policies requiring preservation of evidence in this case and has undertaken substantial and ongoing efforts to preserve evidence.”

The company said it is cooperating with the Justice Department and other official investigations into the Deepwater Horizon accident and oil spill and would not comment on the government's case against Mix.

If convicted, Mix faces up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine per count, the Justice Department said.

Mix was represented at an April 24 bond hearing by attorney David Gerger with Gerger & Clark of Houston. A hearing is scheduled May 3 in New Orleans.

Investigation Continues.

Attorney General Eric Holder said 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.”

Information regarding the amount of oil spilled will be key in levying possible fines against BP and other responsible parties under the federal Clean Water Act. The act specifies a fine of $1,100 per barrel of spilled crude and $4,300 if the discharge is the result of gross negligence.

Meanwhile, BP's proposed civil settlement agreements totaling an estimated $7.8 billion are pending in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana to resolve most private economic loss and medical claims stemming from the rig accident and oil spill.

By Susanne Pagano  


The criminal complaint filed in United States v. Mix is available at http://op.bna.com/env.nsf/r?Open=smiy-8tnupf.

The affidavit in the case is available at http://op.bna.com/env.nsf/r?Open=smiy-8tnutj.