A former BP drilling engineer was indicted Wednesday on charges he deleted text messages that indicated the company's blown-out Gulf of Mexico well was spewing far more crude than BP was telling the public.
The indictment from a federal grand jury in New Orleans charges Kurt Mix, 50, of Katy, Texas, with two counts of obstruction of justice. Mix is scheduled to be arraigned Thursday in New Orleans, according to court records.
Mix was arrested in Texas on April 24 and freed on $100,000 bond following his initial court appearance in Houston.
The criminal charges against Mix are the first in the Justice Department's probe of the April 2010 rig explosion that killed 11 workers and spawned the nation's worst offshore oil spill.
Mix worked on BP's efforts to stop the flow of oil and had access to internal data about the amount of crude gushing from the well, according to the indictment.
"The amount of oil flowing was relevant to various efforts to stop the flow and was also relevant to assessing the damage caused by the flow, including potential civil damages and civil and criminal fines and restitution," the indictment says.
BP had repeatedly notified Mix that he needed to retain all of his spill-related records, including text messages, but he allegedly deleted about 300 texts he sent to a supervisor who served as BP's drilling engineering manager for the Gulf and an outside contractor who also worked on the spill response.
The indictment claims Mix, who resigned from BP in January, deleted the texts to prevent them from being used in the federal grand jury's probe.
In an affidavit released last week, an FBI agent said the Justice Department has been investigating whether BP and its employees broke the law "by intentionally understating" how much oil was leaking from the well.
Mix worked on BP's unsuccessful attempt to stop the leak using a technique called a "top kill." On May 26, 2010, the day the top kill began, Mix estimated in a text to his supervisor that more than 15,000 barrels of oil per day were spilling _ three times BP's public estimate of 5,000 barrels and an amount much greater than what BP said the top kill could probably handle.
The Justice Department has suggested others could face criminal charges. Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement last week that the investigation would continue and "will hold accountable those who violated the law in connection with the largest environmental disaster in U.S. history."
Joan McPhee, Mix's attorney, has expressed confidence that her client would be exonerated at trial.
"These misguided charges over failure to retain text messages constitute startling government overreaching," she said in a statement last week.
Each count of obstruction of justice carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.