Vessels monitor a oil burn in the area of the Deepwater Horizon disaster on the Gulf of Mexico, Tuesday, July 13, 2010. BP officials have placed a containment cap over the leak in hopes that the flow of oil will be diminished. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)
President Barack Obama makes a statement after being briefed on the BP oil spill relief efforts in the Gulf Coast region, Friday, June 4, 2010, at Louis Armstrong International New Orleans Airport in Kenner, La. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
Protesters gather outside of the BP offices in San Francisco on Wednesday, May 12, 2010 to demonstrate against the Gulf oil rig disaster. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
This image from video provided by BP PLC early Sunday morning, June 13, 2010 shows oil continuing to pour out at the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil well in the Gulf of Mexico. The Coast Guard has demanded that BP step up its efforts to contain the oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico by the end of the weekend, telling the British oil giant that its slow pace in stopping the spill is becoming increasingly alarming as the disaster fouled the coastline in ugly new ways Saturday. (AP Photo/BP PLC) NO SALES
This image from video provided by BP PLC early Sunday morning, June 20, 2010 shows oil continuing to gush millions of gallons a day, from the broken wellhead, at the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil well in the Gulf of Mexico. (AP Photo/BP PLC) NO SALES
GULF SHORES, AL - JUNE 08: Workers pick up oil patches and tar that washed up on the beach at Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico on June 8, 2010 in Gulf Shores, Alabama. Early reports indicate that BP's latest plan to stem the flow of oil from the site of the Deepwater Horizon incident may be having some success. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Oil floats in the Gulf of Mexico near Orange Beach, Alabama, U.S., on Friday, June 18, 2010. The BP Plc oil spill, which began when the leased Transocean Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded on April 20, is gushing as much as 60,000 barrels of oil a day into the Gulf of Mexico, the government said. Photographer: Kari Goodnough/Bloomberg
Oil cleanup workers hired by BP pick up oil on the beach in Gulf Shores, Ala., Friday, July 2, 2010. Oil from the Deepwater Horizon incident is expected to come ashore over the July 4th weekend. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)
In this image taken from video provided by BP PLC at 18:17 CDT, a new containment cap, top, is lowered over the broken wellhead at the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Monday, July 12, 2010. Deep-sea robots swarmed around BP's ruptured oil well Monday in a delicately choreographed effort to attach the tighter-fitting cap that could finally stop crude from gushing into the Gulf of Mexico nearly three months into the crisis. (AP Photo/BP PLC) NO SALES
This combo made from images taken from video provided by BP PLC shows oil flowing from two of three valves on the new 75-ton cap atop the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico at 17:04 CDT Wednesday, July 14, 2010, left, and the top of the cap at 17:56 CDT on Thursday, July 15, minutes after the flow of oil was choked off. BP vice president Kent Wells said the oil stopped flowing into the water at 14:25 CDT after engineers gradually dialed back the amount of crude escaping through the last of three vents in the cap, an 18-foot-high metal stack of pipes and valves.(AP Photo/BP PLC) NO SALES
The view from an approaching helicopter shows the armada of drillships and other vessels surrounding the site of the blown out BP well in the Gulf of Mexico about 40 miles off the coast of Louisiana. Credit Brett Clanton / Chronicle
Oil gushes from a valve atop the failed blowout preventer (BOP) at the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill site in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana, U.S., in an image captured by the Skandi remotely operated underwater vehicle (ROV) camera at 7:35 a.m. Central Standard Time (CST) on Tuesday, July 13, 2010. BP Plc installed a new cap on its leaking Gulf of Mexico oil well and will start testing today whether this will stop the gusher while work continues on a permanent plug. Source: BP Plc via Bloomberg
EDITOR'S NOTE: EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NO SALES.
GULF OF MEXICO, LA - JULY 27: (EDITORS NOTE: Distortion caused by heat.) Ships assist in clean up and containment near the source of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill July 27, 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana. Work continues to put a permanent plug on the well which has leaked an estimated three to five million barrels of oil. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Hairdresser Karen Jackson wears a t-shirt that reads "We've been BPeed on!" on the front of the shirt and "Gulf Oil Disaster 2010-??" on the back Saturday, July 3, 2010, in Orange Beach, Ala. Jackson says she is worried about the effect the spill is having on her community and what will happen if local business continues to falter. "I would hate to have to leave this place. We love it here." She said her business is way off what it should be for the season, "down here we make all of our money in the summer," she says. Her husband's work as an electrician has dried up she says, so he has signed on to work cleanup for BP. ( Smiley N. Pool / Houston Chronicle )
A driver rolls down the highway with messages such as "$ave the Gulf Coa$t" and "Tony Hayward C.E. O of B.P. Give us out Live Back" while driving Sunday, June 27, 2010, in Pensacola, Florida. ( Smiley N. Pool / Houston Chronicle )
This still image from a live BP video feed shows a view from a submersible while checking the integrity of the well head on August 3, 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico. BP prepared Tuesday to plug the worst oil leak in history, although the Gulf of Mexico region will be counting the environmental and economic costs for years, perhaps decades, to come. Already delayed by a week due to Tropical Storm Bonnie, the long-awaited "static kill" was put off again at the last-minute when a leak was discovered on Monday in the cap that has been sealing the runaway well since July 15. US spill chief Thad Allen said the leak had been stopped overnight and that the operation to ram in heavy drilling fluids, known as mud, would commence as soon as "injectivity tests" had given the procedure the all-clear. AFP PHOTO / BP == RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE / NO SALES / NO MARKETING / NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGN == (Photo credit should read HO/AFP/Getty Images)(Photo Credit should Read /AFP/Getty Images)
In this image taken from video provided by BP PLC at 12:23 a.m. EDT, Saturday Sept. 4, 2010 Aug. 3, 2010 shows the blowout preventer that failed to stop oil from spewing into the Gulf of Mexico being raised to the surface. The blowout preventer wasn't expected to reach the surface until Saturday, at which point government investigators will take possession of it. (AP Photo/BP PLC) NO SALES
DAUPHIN ISLAND, AL. | JULY 4, 2010 : A cleanup worker, wearing a protective coverall and carrying a small scoop, punctuates an otherwise typical holiday beach scene as patrols the beach looking for tar balls on Independence Day. While exact numbers are elusive, tourist business along the Gulf Coast all reported feeling the sting of lost income from a noticeable dip in tourism this summer following the Deepwater Horizon spill.
GULF OF MEXICO | JUNE 26, 2010 : Streaks of oil are seen on the surface of the water near the site of the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The amount of oil spilled, and what happened to the oil remains in debate, but in August, the Department of Energy and United States Geological Survey announced, that it estimated a total of 4.9 million barrels of oil had been released from the BP Deepwater Horizon well.
GRAND ISLE, LA. | JULY 15, 2010 : Oil containment boom floats just off the pier as fishermen cast lines near the bridge leading to the island after sun sets on the first full day of fishing after a ban on sport fishing was lifted. Commercial fishing remained closed, but happy recreational fishermen flocked to the water on a beautiful evening. Most were BP contractors working on the cleanup. One was Bobby Walker of Houma, La., who said he had been coming to the island to fish for over 30 years and praised the great fishing and natural beauty of the island. "But who would have ever thought I would be here all summer working on the oil spill."
If it hadn’t been for the leg irons and handcuffs, Kurt Mix might have looked as if he’d come straight from the office.
Wearing a lavender dress shirt and khakis, he stood before the federal magistrate as the first person criminally charged in connection with the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
He shouldn’t be the last.
The former BP engineer’s alleged crime: deleting two strings of text messages.
For that, he could face as much as 20 years in prison and fines of as much as a half-million dollars. He swallowed hard as the judge informed him of the potential sentence, and when he responded to questions from the bench, his replies were little more than whisper.
Mix, 50, finds himself in a place few of us ever expect to be. Most of us fail to consider that the quick flip of a thumb, a point, a click — a common impulse of the computer age — could upend our lives.
The government claims Mix deleted a text string from his iPhone in October 2010 after he learned that BP’s lawyers were collecting electronic files. According to the federal indictment, the text contained more than 200 messages with a BP supervisor that included Mix’s comments about the flow rate of the Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico that had blown out six months earlier.
Among the discussions in the exchange, which the government said it recovered forensically, was Mix’s assessment that one of the efforts to plug the well, the “top kill,” would fail.
“Too much flow rate — over 15,000,” he wrote.
What did BP know?
Mix and other engineers had determined that the top kill wouldn’t work if oil was flowing out of the broken well at a rate of more than 15,000 barrels a day, according to the indictment.
At the time, BP was publicly stating that the well was flowing at a rate of just 5,000 barrels a day, a third of what Mix’s message indicates.
A second string of texts that Mix allegedly deleted also involved discussions of flow rates, these with a BP contractor.
In other words, if the government’s claims are correct, Mix’s text messages show that BP insiders knew the company’s public statements about the size of the spill were inaccurate.
Even without those messages, we know BP’s estimates were woefully low. Former CEO Tony Hayward’s stubborn pronouncement that “a guesstimate is a guess-timate” was a ruse.
Federal law requires accurate daily estimates of the spill, both for the purposes of assessing fines later and for providing adequate spill response. The early response efforts were hampered by the BP’s low estimates, which the government embraced.
Caught up in a dispute
BP is a company that’s adept at compensating for its operational deficiencies with legal maneuvering. By obfuscating the actual amount of oil released, BP can argue, as it has, that fines for the spill should be lower than what the government seeks.
Mix is simply a pawn in this legal tug of war. In a statement Tuesday, his attorney, Joan McPhee, called the charges “misguided” and said the contents of the emails the government cites are contained in other messages and documents that Mix retained.
Government prosecutors presumably will look at the supervisor who was on the other end of the text conversation. They are no doubt hoping to use Mix’s testimony to build a case and begin working their way up the corporate chain.
Based on what’s contained in the criminal complaint, it appears the messages themselves simply show Mix engaged in a candid discussion with his boss in the course of doing his job.
The lies came from elsewhere in the company. He didn’t tell them; he didn’t even acknowledge them. His messages apparently are merely the evidence that proves those lies.
Too many victims
Mix was released on bond, but he faces another hearing in New Orleans next week. At some point, he’ll probably have to choose between ratting out co-workers or going to prison.
We don’t yet know why Mix allegedly deleted the messages after company lawyers warned against such actions. Regardless of whether it was out of loyalty, impulse, fear or at the suggestion of a supervisor, he shouldn’t have. In doing so, he may have violated the letter of the law.
But if Kurt Mix serves a day in jail while decision-makers higher up in BP remain unindicted, he will become yet another victim of a tragedy that already has too many.
Loren Steffy, email@example.com, is the Chronicle’s business columnist. His commentary appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Follow him online at blog.chron.com/lorensteffy, www.facebook.com/LorenSteffypage and twitter.com/lsteffy.