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First BP oil spill arrest: Why put the squeeze on a mid-level engineer?

The first criminal charges brought in the 2010 BP oil spill – against Kurt Mix, a former BP engineer – show that the government still seeks the answer to an essential question in the spill’s aftermath: Did BP tell the truth about what it knew about the size of the spill? At stake are billions in fines.

By Staff writer / April 24, 2012

This April 2010 photo shows oil in the Gulf of Mexico, more than 50 miles southeast of Venice on Louisiana's tip, as a large plume of smoke rises from fires on BP's Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig. The Justice Department says the first criminal charges in the Deepwater Horizon disaster have been filed on Tuesday against a former BP engineer who allegedly destroyed evidence.

Gerald Herbert/AP/File

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The arrest of former BP engineer Kurt Mix two years after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, causing the biggest offshore oil disaster in the US, suggests that the federal government is still looking for answers about what the oil giant knew, and when, as it sought to convince the public, investors, and US officials that it had the situation in hand.

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In the first such criminal indictment related to the BP oil spill, Mr. Mix, of Kady, Texas, appeared Tuesday in court in Houston, charged with obstruction for allegedly destroying some 300 e-mails and text messages related to what BP knew about the true flow rate of the Macondo well in the days after the explosion. Eleven rig workers died in the accident, and at least 4 million barrels of oil spewed into the Gulf.

One e-mail the FBI was able to retrieve suggested that BP knew its first attempt to cap the well – the so-called "top kill" – would probably fail, even though the company told the public and the government that it had a 60 to 70 percent chance of success.

Mix told his superviser that the top kill wasn’t working because the flow rate was more than 15,000 barrels per day. BP had suggested publicly at the time that the rate was about 5,000 barrels per day, and had said that a higher volume could doom the top kill maneuver, which involved pumping heavy mud at high velocity into the well in order to beat back the oil and seal the well.

While more criminal arrests are expected, the indictment against Mix – a mid-level engineer who had his pulse on how much oil was blowing out of the compromised well a mile below the Gulf of Mexico – has the earmarks of a common prosecutorial tactic in corporate cases: Single out a weak link in a company’s armor and put pressure on that person to testify on the government’s behalf.

Mix was released on $100,000 bail on Tuesday. He faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted on both counts.

“As a prosecutor, that’s the first thing you look for, a weak link,” says Jane Barrett, an environmental law professor at the University of Maryland. “And somebody obstructing an investigation is pretty easy to prove … and the goal would be to use this as a way to negotiate a cooperator deal, where [Mix] would, in exchange for [a reduced sentence], agree to provide information to the government on other aspects of the case.”

While civil lawsuits are pending concerning who is liable in the accident, the US Justice Department acknowledges that the flow-rate estimates are a key part of its criminal investigation.

“Among the areas under investigation is whether [BP] and/or individuals employed by BP violated any federal criminal laws by intentionally understating the amount of oil that was flowing from the Macondo well following the April 20, 2010, explosions,” writes FBI special agent Barbara O’Donnell in the affidavit against Mix.

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