First Criminal Charges Filed in Deepwater Horizon Case

Kurt E. Mix, 50, a former BP plc engineer from Katy, Texas, was charged with two counts of obstruction of justice and was arrested April 24.

The investigation of the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill made headlines again April 24 when The U.S. Department of Justice announced the arrest of Kurt E. Mix, 50, a former BP plc engineer, on two counts of obstruction of justice. DOJ posted a supporting affidavit in which FBI Special Agent Barbara O'Donnell alleges Mix deleted hundreds of text messages he had sent shortly after the incident began, when BP was still trying to shut off the hydrocarbons flowing from the well. Some of those messages reported the flow rate was much higher than BP publicly acknowledged -- high enough to foil the method it was trying, according to the affidavit.

BP posted a brief statement declining to comment on the arrest: "BP is cooperating with the Department of Justice and other official investigations into the Deepwater Horizon accident and oil spill," the statement said. "BP had clear policies requiring preservation of evidence in this case and has undertaken substantial and ongoing efforts to preserve evidence. We will not comment on the Government's case against former BP employee Kurt Mix and we will continue cooperating in the Department of Justice's investigation."

The Houston Chronicle reported April 24 that a federal judge in New Orleans is expected to hold a hearing April 25 about BP's proposed $7.8 billion settlement of a civil case against it.

"The department has filed initial charges in its investigation into the Deepwater Horizon disaster against an individual for allegedly deleting records relating to the amount of oil flowing from the Macondo well after the explosion that led to the devastating tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico," U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in announcing the charges. "The Deepwater Horizon Task Force is continuing its investigation into the explosion and will hold accountable those who violated the law in connection with the largest environmental disaster in U.S. history."

Earlier, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board posted a detailed update about its ongoing investigation that explains where it is focused and went it will be finished. The April 20, 2010, blowout of the Macondo well killed 11 workers and triggered a massive oil spill, costing the companies involved billions of dollars and resulting in new regulations requiring more stringent safety management systems.

CSB said its investigation will be completed this year, with recommendations expected in August 2012 and a final report expected to be completed in early 2013. "Investigation findings to date indicate a need for companies and regulators to institute more rigorous accident prevention programs similar to those in use overseas," its April 19 news release stated, adding that oil companies' process safety management regulations and standards for their refineries and process plants in the continental United States "have a stronger major accident prevention focus" than their offshore operations do. The U.S. offshore regulatory system is less rigorous and does not apply equally to operators and key contractors alike, according to CSB.

"Our final report on the tragic accident that occurred two years ago will, I believe, represent an opportunity to make fundamental safety improvements to offshore oil and gas exploration to prevent future catastrophic accidents," said Rafael Moure-Eraso, the board's chairman. "The CSB is not a regulatory agency; our job is to convey information and recommendations to improve safety in the oil and chemical industries and protect workers and the environment. In our view, while previous investigations of the Macondo blowout have produced useful information and recommendations, important opportunities for change have not been fully addressed, and these are critically important for major accident prevention."

The agency will hold several public meetings as part of the investigation, with the first meeting probably taking place in July 2012 in Houston and addressing the use of leading and lagging indicators by companies and regulators to improve safety performance. Human factors and fatigue are one angle of its inquiry, CSB Investigator Cheryl MacKenzie said. "There are no human factors standards or regulations in U.S. offshore drilling that focus on major accident prevention. As an example, we are investigating whether fatigue was a factor in this accident," she explained. "Transocean's rig workers, originally working 14-day shifts, had been required to go to 21-day shifts on board. CSB is examining whether this decision was assessed for its impact on safe operations."

The U.S. Department of Justice has asked a federal judge to require Transocean Ltd., which is based in Switzerland and owned the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform, to comply with CSB subpoenas. A hearing recently took place on that request, according to the release. Transocean's own investigation of the blowout blamed BP for failing to assess or manage risks, including failing to require or confirm cement tests. The cause of the explosion was the cement’s failure to prevent hydrocarbons from entering the wellbore, Transocean concluded. (Visit to read the executive summary of its report.)

CSB investigators also are doing additional computer modeling of the failed blowout preventer to pin down the functions that specifically caused its failure and are evaluating why the drill pipe buckled, which other investigations concluded may have prevented the blowout preventer from shutting down the well as designed.

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