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Ex-BP engineer in oil spill arrest

US prosecutors have brought the first criminal charges over the Gulf oil spill, accusing a former BP engineer of deleting more than 300 text messages that indicated the blown-out well was spewing far more crude than the company was telling the public at the time.

Two years and four days after the Deepwater Horizon drilling-rig explosion which killed 11 workers and set off the worst offshore oil spill in US history, Kurt Mix, 50, of Katy, Texas, was arrested and charged with two counts of obstruction of justice for allegedly destroying evidence.

His lawyer, Joan McPhee, issued a statement describing the charges as misguided and said she was confident he would be exonerated. "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," she said. "Indeed, the emails that Kurt preserved include the very ones highlighted by the government."

The US Justice Department made it clear that the investigation was still going on and suggested more people could be arrested. Attorney general Eric Holder said prosecutors "will hold accountable those who violated the law in connection with the largest environmental disaster in US history".

More than 200 million gallons of crude oil leaked from the well, off the Louisiana coast, before it was capped.

Investigators have been looking into the causes of the blowout and the actions of managers, engineers and rig workers at BP and its sub-contractors Halliburton and Transocean in the days and hours before the April 20 2010 explosion.

But the case against Mix focuses only on the aftermath of the blast, when BP scrambled for weeks to plug the leak. Even then, the charges are not really about the disaster itself, but about an alleged attempt to thwart the investigation into it.

In court papers, the FBI said one of the areas under investigation was whether the oil company intentionally downplayed the amount of crude spewing from the well. In outlining the charges, the government suggested Mix knew the rate of flow was much greater than the company publicly acknowledged.

Prosecutors also said BP gave the public an optimistic account of its May 2010 efforts to plug the well via a technique called a "top kill", even though the company's internal data and some of the text messages showed the operation was likely to fail.

In a statement, BP said it was co-operating with the Justice Department and added: "BP had clear policies requiring preservation of evidence in this case and has undertaken substantial and ongoing efforts to preserve evidence."

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