They were, perhaps, the costliest texts ever deleted.
A federal jury on Wednesday convicted former BP engineer Kurt Mix on an obstruction charge, siding with prosecutors who said Mix deleted more than 300 text messages related to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster.
While executives and others have so far evaded conviction for the devastating spill that changed the Gulf of Mexico, Mix is the first person to be successfully prosecuted for the catastrophe. He faces up to 20 years in prison and will be sentenced in March, the U.S. Justice Department said in a written statement.
“Today a jury in New Orleans found that Kurt Mix purposefully obstructed the efforts of law enforcement during the investigation of the largest environmental disaster in U.S. history,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Mythili Raman. “This prosecution shows the commitment of the Justice Department to hold accountable those who attempt to interfere with the administration of justice.”
The deletions followed explosions aboard the oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico that killed 11 employees and unleashed the country’s worst environmental disaster. Many of the texts referred to how much oil was flowing into the Gulf.
BP estimates it has paid nearly $12.8 billion in federal fines and claims resulting from the spill. The disaster devastated fisheries and other industries along the Gulf Coast, and biologists say the spill has had long-lasting effects on fish, mammals, birds, and other wildlife in the region.
Despite widespread knowledge of those effects and how to prevent future disasters, the government has been slow to reform drilling regulations, said David Pettit, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“I’m concerned that we’re no better prepared to deal with [a spill] than we were in 2010,” he said. “If you make your living on the Gulf, you should be worried.”
An Interior Department spokesperson did not immediately respond to an interview request.
The lack of enforcement reforms has been particularly frustrating for people such as Robert Bea, a retired UC Berkeley professor who aided a presidential commission that recommended a slew of changes. Few, if any, have been implemented.
“I personally hate to engage in these things,” said Bea, whose criticism of the Army Corps of Engineers after Hurricane Katrina brought personal attacks and left him with post-traumatic stress disorder. “The reason I grit my teeth and say, ‘What the hell,’ is a hope it will have a positive effect.
“At this point, I’m not at all convinced I’ve spent my time wisely.”
The Gulf has about 3,000 oil rigs and platforms, said Rena Steinzor, a University of Maryland law professor and an environmental-law expert. Unless the government cracks down on safety, she said, another disaster is inevitable.
Although engineers like Mix should be held accountable for obstructing the federal investigation, Steinzor said, they and corporate executives also should be prosecuted for causing the explosion and spill.
“I see Kurt Mix as a first step,” she said. “But it’s just revealing the tip of the iceberg. I think they need to climb up the chain.”