Criminal charges

Arrest of engineer in Gulf spill a reminder that catastrophes cannot end with ‘oops’

It may be true that under the law, corporations are people, but a corporation cannot be sent to prison. People can, and sometimes some of them need to be reminded of that.

It is welcome news then that a former engineer with BP has been arrested and charged with obstructing justice for alledgedly concealing information about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. What he is accused of has rightly been called a crime, not an error.

Kurt Mix, of Katy, Texas, is charged with deleting about 300 text messages from his iPhone in 2010 and 2011. That was contrary to express orders from BP and, possibly illegal. As reported in TheWall Street Journal, the messages “included sensitive information about the failure of one of the efforts to stop the flow of oil.’”

Mix, of course, enjoys the presumption of innocence. And it should be noted that there are, at present, no accusations that BP as a corporation or any of its higher-ups are guilty of wrongdoing.

But it would be rare in a mess as big and as damaging as the Gulf spill for there not to be someone who was negligent, incompetent or asleep at the switch and then tried to cover it up. Nor would it unusual in an episode so costly for someone to have had more of an eye on cost containment than on fixing the problem.

In this case, the suggestion is that Mix may have helped conceal the true extent of the spill. That matters, in part because under the U.S. Clean Water Act fines are based on the amount of the contamination.

The next questions, then, are whether Mix was acting on orders, if so, from whom and what will become of them. Mix’s arrest suggests that anyone else involved should take those questions seriously.

Fines matter little to major corporations. Any fine big enough to hurt harms innocent stockholders. But guilty individuals can be jailed. Their punishment is personally felt, and justice can be seen to have been done.

Would that the criminal justice had been applied more in addressing some of the machinations that led to the financial meltdown.