Ex-BP engineer destroyed evidence, prosecutor says

A former BP engineer destroyed evidence sought by the U.S. for a probe of the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, a federal prosecutor said Tuesday at the opening of a trial in New Orleans.

U.S. prosecutors charged Kurt Mix with two counts of obstruction of justice last year, alleging he deleted from his mobile phone text messages and voice mails related to the company’s effort to estimate the size of the spill. Mix was a senior BP engineer involved in leading efforts to cap the Macondo well as it gushed into the Gulf of Mexico.

“This is a case about a BP engineer, Kurt Mix, who in the wake of the massive Macondo oil spill, was told over and over not to delete messages, and he made the choice to do it anyway,” prosecutor Jennifer Saulino told jurors.

Mix’s criminal case is the first arising from the disaster to go before a jury. He denies any intentional destruction of evidence and has pleaded not guilty. BP agreed last year to pay $4 billion to resolve the federal criminal probe of its role in the spill.

The blowout of BP’s deep-water Macondo well off the coast of Louisiana in April 2010 killed 11 people and set off the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history.

Mix denies any intentional destruction of evidence and has pleaded not guilty.

“The government’s simple explanation of what happened here is flat wrong,” Joan McPhee, Mix’s lawyer, said Tuesday in her opening statement. “The evidence is going to be clear as day that there is no obstruction of justice here.”

The oil spill triggered a federal investigation of the incident and thousands of lawsuits against London-based BP, as well as Transocean, owner of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig that burned and sank, and Halliburton Co., which provided cement services for the well.

Mix, who was arrested in April 2012, was the first person indicted over the 2010 disaster. U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval Jr. is presiding over the trial.

Mix was involved in BP’s efforts to cap the well with a procedure called Top Kill, the U.S. said in court papers. Top Kill involved pumping drilling mud and other material into the Deepwater Horizon’s blowout preventer, which was still atop the well on the sea floor.

Mix knew that BP’s internal estimates of the flow rate from the well were “well above” the numbers the company was citing publicly and the maximum 15,000 barrel-a-day limit for Top Kill to be successful, the U.S. said. He didn’t disclose that at a meeting between government officials and BP engineers in May 2010 and subsequently erased references to it on his iPhone, prosecutors said.

Mix texted a supervisor on May 26, 2010, that the flow rate was too high for Top Kill to work, Federal Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Barbara O’Donnell said in a sworn statement filed in the case. The well wasn’t capped until the following July.

“Too much flow rate — over 15,000 and too large an orifice,” Mix said, according to the U.S. Mix later deleted the text, O’Donnell said. The U.S. was able to recover most of Mix’s texts, including this one, using “forensic tools,” she said in an April 2012 filing.

“The defendant had both corrupt intent and a clear motive to delete his text messages with supervisor — which included a text message reflecting the defendant’s contemporaneous belief during Top Kill that Top Kill was failing because the flow rate was too high — because he did not want the government to discover what his true beliefs had been,” prosecutors said in court papers in September.

Mix “also lied” to BP’s document vendor and outside counsel about “relevant materials on his iPhone,” prosecutors said.

“Mr. Mix was not some low level guy,” Saulino told jurors. “The evidence will show that he was, internally, the go-to-guy on flow rate for BP.”

Mix “should never have been indicted in the first place,” his lawyers argued in court papers. The government is attempting to make Mix “a central and essential player in a BP cover-up of information from the federal government,” they said in a May 9 filing.

“These misguided charges over failure to retain text messages constitute startling government overreaching,” McPhee, Mix’s lawyer, said in an e-mailed statement after he was arrested last year. “We have every confidence that Kurt will be exonerated at trial.”

Three other BP employees were indicted on spill-related charges after Mix was arrested. Two BP well-site managers, Robert Kaluza and Donald Vidrine, were charged in November 2012 with involuntary manslaughter for the 11 deaths on the well. David Rainey, the company’s former vice president of exploration for the Gulf of Mexico, was also charged that month with providing false statements related to the size of the spill.

All three have pleaded not guilty. Rainey’s trial is scheduled for March; Kaluza and Vidrine face trial in June.

BP pleaded guilty to 14 criminal counts including 11 for felony manslaughter, one misdemeanor count under the Clean Water Act, one misdemeanor count under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and one felony count of obstruction of Congress for misrepresenting the size of the spill.

Transocean pleaded guilty in February to one misdemeanor count of violating the U.S. Clean Water Act and agreed to pay a $400 million criminal fine.

Halliburton agreed in July to plead guilty to a misdemeanor for failing after the explosion to preserve computer models examining the final cement job on the well. The company paid a statutory maximum fine of $200,000.