Deepwater Horizon accident
NOAA

In May 2010, as BP prepared to try to staunch the flow of oil from beneath the wrecked Deepwater Horizon rig by dumping mud over the blowout, some of the company’s engineers knew the effort was bound to fail. But the mud-dumping plan, codenamed Top Kill, moved forward anyway as the world’s media watched on. Sure enough, Top Kill failed to staunch the leak.

One of the engineers who knew the effort would fail, Kurt Mix, later tried to keep that a secret from investigators. When Mix found out that his iPhone was about to be seized, he deleted more than 100 text messages — messages such as “Too much flowrate – over 15,000.” In that message, Mix was warning a colleague that 15,000 barrels of oil was leaking every day, which was too much oil for the operation to handle, and three times the flow rate that BP had stated publicly.

The presumably panicked decision to delete the texts on Wednesday led to the 52-year-old Texan being found guilty by a jury of one charge of obstruction of justice — a charge that carries a maximum penalty of 20 years imprisonment. He avoided conviction on a second, similar charge. His attorneys vowed to appeal. From the AP:

Mix, who was arrested in April 2012, was the first of four current or former BP employees charged with spill-related crimes and the first of them to be tried.

BP took corporate responsibility for its role in the catastrophe earlier this year, pleading guilty in January to manslaughter charges for the workers’ deaths and agreeing to pay a record $4 billion in penalties. But none of the top executives at the London-based oil giant have been charged with crimes.

David Uhlmann, a University of Michigan law professor and former chief of the Justice Department’s environmental crimes section, said Mix was a “sympathetic defendant” because his conduct seemed relatively minor in the context of a disaster that killed 11 workers and spewed millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf. Uhlmann, however, said the Justice Department appropriately has a “zero-tolerance policy” for those who destroy evidence in a criminal investigation.

“The Gulf oil spill was the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. Kurt Mix was charged with deleting text messages from his iPhone,” he said. “The government was justified in seeking charges, but there’s a proportionality problem here.”

Props to the feds for going after BP wrongdoers. But it would sure be nice to see some senior execs held accountable for the 2010 disaster, which is still affecting the Gulf of Mexico and its fishermen and shoreline communities.