Federal prosecutors brought the first criminal charges Tuesday in the Gulf of Mexico 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 on 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. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said prosecutors "will hold accountable those who violated the law in connection with the largest environmental disaster in U.S. history."
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, blast.
But the case against Mix focuses only on the aftermath of the blast, when BP scrambled for weeks to plug the leak. The charges are not really about the disaster itself, but about an alleged attempt to thwart the investigation into it.
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 using a technique called a "top kill," even though its internal data and some of the text messages showed the operation was likely to fail.
Mix deleted more than 200 messages sent to a BP supervisor from his iPhone containing information about how much oil was spilling out, then erased 100 more messages to a contractor the following year, prosecutors said. Some of the messages were later recovered via forensic computer techniques.
David Uhlmann, a University of Michigan law professor who was chief of the Justice Department's environmental crimes section, said the charges are probably "just the first of what will be multiple criminal charges."
The explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig killed 11 workers.