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First BP oil spill arrest: Why put the squeeze on a mid-level engineer?

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Mix told his superviser that the top kill wasn’t working because the flow rate was more than 15,000 barrels per day. BP had suggested publicly at the time that the rate was about 5,000 barrels per day, and had said that a higher volume could doom the top kill maneuver, which involved pumping heavy mud at high velocity into the well in order to beat back the oil and seal the well.

While more criminal arrests are expected, the indictment against Mix – a mid-level engineer who had his pulse on how much oil was blowing out of the compromised well a mile below the Gulf of Mexico – has the earmarks of a common prosecutorial tactic in corporate cases: Single out a weak link in a company’s armor and put pressure on that person to testify on the government’s behalf.

Mix was released on $100,000 bail on Tuesday. He faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted on both counts.

“As a prosecutor, that’s the first thing you look for, a weak link,” says Jane Barrett, an environmental law professor at the University of Maryland. “And somebody obstructing an investigation is pretty easy to prove … and the goal would be to use this as a way to negotiate a cooperator deal, where [Mix] would, in exchange for [a reduced sentence], agree to provide information to the government on other aspects of the case.”

While civil lawsuits are pending concerning who is liable in the accident, the US Justice Department acknowledges that the flow-rate estimates are a key part of its criminal investigation.

“Among the areas under investigation is whether [BP] and/or individuals employed by BP violated any federal criminal laws by intentionally understating the amount of oil that was flowing from the Macondo well following the April 20, 2010, explosions,” writes FBI special agent Barbara O’Donnell in the affidavit against Mix.

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