The flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon disaster two years ago was much larger than BP had publicly stated, according to charges filed today by the Justice Department.
The information was revealed in the criminal complaint against former BP engineer Kurt Mix, who was arrested today on charges of intentionally destroying evidence.
The charges against Mix, 50, mark the first criminal case brought by the Justice Department in the wake of the April 20, 2010, blowout on the oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, and provides evidence that BP might have misled the public and the government about the flow rate of oil pouring into the Gulf.
The Deepwater Horizon blowout and resulting explosions at the Macondo well killed 11 people and resulted in the largest environmental disaster in U.S. history.
Mix worked on internal BP efforts to estimate the amount of oil gushing from the well and was involved in efforts to stop the flow. Court documents allege that Mix deleted a text he had sent on the evening of May 26, 2010, at the end of the first day of an effort to cap the well called "Top Kill."
In the text exchange with a BP supervisor, Mix wrote, "Too much flowrate -- over 15,000."
At the time, BP's public estimate of the flow rate was 5,000 barrels of oil per day, three times lower than the minimum flow rate indicated in Mix's text.
Mix allegedly deleted more than 200 texts with his supervisor but many of them, the FBI affidavit notes, have been recovered using forensic tools.
In addition, the Justice Department charges that Mix allegedly deleted more than 100 text messages with a BP contractor concerning how much oil was flowing from the Macondo well after the blowout. Mix allegedly deleted those texts after learning that his iPhone was about to be imaged by a vendor working for BP's outside counsel.
The FBI affidavit states that Mix noted in his initial estimates that early flow rates coming from the Macondo well ranged from 64,000 to 138,000 barrels of oil per day in the immediate aftermath of the explosion.
"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," Attorney General Eric Holder said. "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."
Mix's attorney, Joan McPhee of Ropes & Gray LLP, claimed the goverment was "overreaching" by filing charges.
"Kurt Mix was part of the team that responded to the accident to figure out how to stop the well from flowing," McPhee said in a written statement. "The government says he intentionally deleted text messages from his phone, but the content of those messages still resides in thousands of emails, text messages and other documents that he saved. Indeed, the emails that Kurt preserved include the very ones highlighted by the government.
"These misguided charges over failure to retain text messages constitute startling government overreaching," McPhee added. "We have every confidence that Kurt will be exonerated at trial."
If convicted, Mix faces a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 as to each count.
An official statement from BP said the company would cooperate with "the Department of Justice and other official investigations into the Deepwater Horizon accident and oil spill."
It suggested the company had "clear policies" about preserving evidence.
But the company would not comment specifically on the allegations against Mix.
"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," according to the statement from BP's corporate office.