NEW ORLEANS — A BP engineer intentionally deleted more than 300 text messages indicating the amount of oil flowing into the Gulf of Mexico was much greater than what the company later reported and that BP's efforts to control the spill were failing, the U.S. Justice Department alleged Tuesday in its first criminal charges related to the deadly explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig.
Kurt Mix was arrested Tuesday and charged with two counts of obstruction of justice for allegedly destroying evidence sought by federal authorities.
The charges came a day before a federal judge in New Orleans was to consider a motion granting preliminary approval of a $7.8 billion civil 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.
Criminal penalties that could be levied against BP and its partners in the operation would be based in part on estimates of the amount of oil that spilled from the Macondo well.
In an emailed 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, was scheduled to appear in federal court in Houston on Tuesday afternoon. If convicted, he faces up to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 on each count. The statement did not say whether Mix had a lawyer.
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.
On the very first day in May of 2010 that BP began to use the "top kill" method to plug the leaking well by pumping heavy mud into the blown-out well head, Katy estimated in a text to his supervisor that 15,000 barrels of oil per day were spilling — an amount greater than what BP said the method could likely handle.
The BP-leased rig Deepwater Horizon exploded the night of April 20, 2010, killing 11 workers and setting off the nation's worst offshore oil disaster. More than 200 million gallons of crude oil flowed out of the well off the Louisiana coast before it was capped.