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US files first criminal charges against BP engineer in oil spill investigation

Former BP engineer Kurt Mix, was indicted for two counts of obstruction of justice in an official complaint unsealed today in New Orleans.
Posted: April 24, 2012 - 10:25PM
Author: Don Bain

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The 50-year-old former drilling engineer for BP had the thankless job of estimating the amount of crude leaking from the Deepwater Horizon oil well, subsequent to the explosion that created the worst environmental disaster in US history, dwarfing the appalling results of the Exxon Valdez incident in Alaska.

One could say Mix was between the devil and the deep blue sea in a virtually literal sense. Precisely he is accused of deleting over 300 text messages detailing the failure of BP’s Top Kill project, the company’s effort to cap the oil spill.

Essentially Mix needed to keep management apprised of the actual facts without leaking the true extent of the problem to the media, a responsibility akin to juggling wildcats

Prosecutors claimed the company reported the release of 5,000 barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico daily, when the known reality was 15,000 barrels a day. Presumably the company was trying to avoid governmental intrusion as they ineffectively grappled with the monumental toxic spill being exacerbated daily.

Even before the Top Kill project was implemented, Mix and other BP engineers did not expect the effort to be successful, according to the article on the USA Today website by Kevin Johnson and Rick Jervis.

The engineer could face up to 20 years in prison as well as a fine of $250,000 if convicted of either count. The indictments announced today frankly assert the company knew the extent of the flow and purposefully mislead the government, media, public and environmental activists.

The explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform on April 20 two years ago instantly killed 11 BP employees and proceeded to dump 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf, a disaster of Biblical proportions that will have ramifications lasting for decades.

Independent monitors and environmental groups maintained throughout the long toxic ordeal that the company was releasing far more oil than they were admitting.

"It was clear to anyone who knew flow rates that those estimates didn't make sense," USA Today quoted Aaron Viles, the deputy director of the Gulf Restoration Network, a New Orleans-based environmental group as saying. "We certainly feel vindicated."

The article also provided comments from Tony Kennon, Mayor of Orange Beach, AL.

"This validates our claim all along,” he said. “They were not being honest, they were not being forthright, and they were not doing the right thing from Day One."

Kennon was glad the indictment had been handed down but expressed the hope it is only the first of many criminal charges resulting from the corporate mishandling of natural assets.

"To me, it shows the arrogance of a large corporation like this, and what I would consider an incestuous relationship between it and Washington, D.C., to think they can get away with this," he concluded.

Today’s charges will not affect a recent agreement between BP and a group of attorneys, according to Robert Wiygul, an Ocean Springs, Miss., environmental attorney representing impacted fishermen and other businesses in the continuing litigation over the spill. The deal entails an estimated $8 billion outlay by BP concerning thousands of injured parties and is subject to approval by U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier.

These charges are relevant to future litigation, however, inclusive of liability hearings, with the potential to ultimately increase BP's restitution, payment of federal environmental fines and punitive damages up to tens of billions of dollars.

This is just the latest ripple for the 113-year-old concern judged to be the fourth largest in the world. As the first company to find and produce oil from the vast Persian oil fields of the Middle East, the company history reads like a blend of Lawrence of Arabia, The World Is Not Enough and The Green Zone.

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