The U.S. Justice Department broke new ground in the case against BP for causing the worst oil spill in this country’s history, when it brought criminal charges against a BP engineer for obstructing justice by deleting communications regarding the true size of the spill. The engineer, Kurt Mix (51), has been arrested.

On April 20, 2010 BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico suffered a major explosion that killed 11 workers and then went on to spew close to 62,000 barrels of oil per day into the Gulf, causing unprecedented damage to the surrounding environment and marine life.

The extensive leak-plug and mop-up operations that followed saw nearly five months pass before the oil flow was halted and even two years after the spill tar balls continue to wash up on the Louisiana coastline.

While BP set up a $20 bill escrow fund to compensate coastline residents and businesses for economic loss resulting from the spill, the administration and Congress from an early phase kept up the pressure on BP to investigate all wrongdoing and prior knowledge of faults within the rig.

This week’s charges, however, do not pertain to the question of prior knowledge but the suspicion that Mr. Mix obstructed justice by erasing more than 200 messages sent to a BP supervisor from his telephone in October.

According to reports these messages contained information on how much oil was spilling out at the time. Mr. Mix then went on to delete 100 more messages in 2011, it was reported, after receiving numerous legal notices from BP to preserve the information. He could potentially face 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 on each count.

In a statement the Department of Justice explained that Mr. Mix had deleted a text message he had sent on the evening of May 26, 2010, at the end of the first day of the “Top Kill” operation to choke of the leak. In that text message, Mr. Mix was said to have stated, “Too much flow-rate – over 15,000.”

Before Top Kill commenced, Mr. Mix and other engineers had concluded internally that Top Kill was unlikely to succeed if the flow rate was greater than 15,000 barrels of oil per day. At the time, BP’s public estimate of the flow rate was 5,000 barrels per day – three times lower than the minimum flow rate indicated in Mr. Mix’s text.

While Mr. Mix’s arrest was the first ever in this high-profile case, Attorney General Eric Holder said the “Department has filed initial charges in its investigation,” hinting that more charges may be on the way.

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