NEW ORLEANS - A BP engineer intentionally deleted more than 300 text messages that said the company's efforts to control the Gulf of Mexico oil spill were failing and that the amount of oil leaking was far more than what the company reported, the Justice Department said Tuesday.
In the first criminal charges related to the deadly explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig in April 2010, the Justice Department arrested Kurt Mix and charged him with two counts of obstruction of justice for allegedly destroying evidence sought by federal authorities, officials announced in a statement.
The charges came a day before a federal judge in New Orleans was to consider preliminary approval of a $7.8 billion settlement between BP and a committee of plaintiffs in a civil case. Shrimp processors have raised objections, saying the settlement does not adequately compensate them.
Having an accurate flow-rate estimate is key to determining how much in civil and criminal penalties BP and the other companies drilling the Macondo will face under the Clean Water Act.
In an e-mailed statement, BP said it would not comment on the case but is cooperating with the Justice Department and other investigations into the oil 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.
Mix, 50, of Katy, Texas, appeared before a judge in Houston and was released on $100,000 bail. Mix, who no longer works for BP, said very little during the hearing, answering routine questions about the charges. His attorney declined comment after the hearing. If convicted, he faces up to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 on each count.
The engineer deleted more than 200 messages sent to a BP supervisor from his iPhone in October 2010 containing information about how much oil was spilling out - and then erased 100 more the following year after receiving numerous legal notices to preserve the information, the Justice Department said in a news release.
As the spill grew into weeks and months, and soiled fishing grounds, beaches, and coastal marshes, independent scientists questioned the official flow rates.