First Criminal Charges Filed In BP Gulf Oil Spill

The first criminal charges were filed on Tuesday in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster. An engineer for BP was charged with obstruction of justice for deleting hundreds of text messages after the spill. Carrie Johnson talks to Robert Siegel.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. It was April 20, 2010, when BP's Deepwater Horizon oil rig caught fire. Today, the Justice Department filed the first criminal charges in connection with the disaster. A former BP engineer has been arrested and charged with obstruction of justice. He's alleged to have deleted hundreds of text messages about the oil that was spilling into the Gulf of Mexico.

SIEGEL: NPR's Carrie Johnson was the first to report the arrest, and she joins us now. Carrie, after two years, these are the very first criminal charges brought against anyone involved in the spill. What can you tell us about the BP engineer, and what he was arrested for?

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Robert, his name is Kurt Mix. He left the company, but before he left, he served as an engineer, as you said. He lives in suburban Houston, Texas, in a town called Katy. And he's now been charged with two counts of obstruction of justice. He was arrested, and he will face those charges, which, as you said, are the long-awaited first criminal charges resulting from that oil spill.

SIEGEL: And what is known about what these messages that he deleted deal with and whom he sent them to?

JOHNSON: There are two batches of text messages that he deleted. The first came around October 2010, after the spill, and he was corresponding with an unnamed supervisor about how much oil was flowing out of the Macondo well and into the gulf. This is important, Robert, because he was part of an operation - Mr. Mix, the engineer - was part of an operation to try to pour a lot of mud into that wellhead to try to stop the oil flow. And what these messages allegedly show, according to the Justice Department, is that that operation was not working.

Then there was another batch of text messages that he deleted in August 2011, and those messages also had to do with how much oil was flowing into the gulf. And those messages apparently were between Mr. Mix and a contractor for BP.

SIEGEL: Now, the BP oil rig Deepwater Horizon exploded a little more than two years ago. Eleven workers died. And it has taken a pretty long time for federal charges to be filed. Are there more arrests expected in this case?

JOHNSON: Robert, based on the other cases I've covered like this in the past, obviously, this is the biggest environmental disaster in U.S. history, but there are other corporate disasters that have been pretty big. This is a very common strategy by the Justice Department, to charge one individual with obstruction of justice or alleged cover-up after a crime and use that person as a way to get into and higher up a corporate ladder. So what the Justice Department and Attorney General Eric Holder have said is that their task force is continuing to work to build criminal cases against others - current and former at BP - for conduct both before and after the spill. And we should expect more activity in the coming months.

SIEGEL: Any response yet from BP?

JOHNSON: BP says it's cooperating with the Justice Department investigation. It points out that it made well-known to all employees, including Mr. Mix, that they were not supposed to be destroying evidence after the spill. But it doesn't have any further comment about the individual criminal charges today.

SIEGEL: Now, these are the first criminal charges. There have been civil settlements that BP has made. But, for example, what kind of a penalty might Mr. Mix face given what he's charged with?

JOHNSON: Federal prosecutors say he faces as many as 20 years in prison and $250,000 in fines.

SIEGEL: And has there been any comment from Mr. Mix?

JOHNSON: Mr. Mix has not said anything publicly at this point. He was charged in a criminal complaint. A grand jury has not yet indicted him. And when one is charged in a criminal complaint, that leaves you a little bit of negotiating room. If you want to negotiate a plea prospectively with the Justice Department, you have a little bit of time to do that. So I'm going to be looking for that in the weeks ahead.

SIEGEL: OK. Carrie, thanks.

JOHNSON: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's justice correspondent Carrie Johnson talking about the first criminal charges filed in the BP oil spill.

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