Deepwater Horizon: Where Is the Outrage?


Photo by U.S. Coast Guard

Photo by U.S. Coast Guard

The criminal negligence of British Petroleum killed 11 people on the Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico. If you need a refresher on this point, read the excellent New York Times article chronicling the events surrounding the disaster or look at the trial court’s decision in the civil case. Driven by corporate greed – specifically, the expenses of chartering the Deepwater Horizon and the impending deadlines for it to be elsewhere – BP and its contractors made a series of terrible decisions that, quite literally, blew up in their faces. BP also wrecked the livelihood of thousands of Gulf Coast residents and caused long term damage to a fragile, irreplaceable environment. But let’s focus on the homicides for a moment.

First, a hypothetical: assume a salesman, driving carelessly and in a hurry, en route to his next appointment. He speeds, loses control of his car, hits a bus, and kills 11 passengers. It wasn’t intentional, it was negligent. It was driven by financial motivations, by greed if you will. How many years in prison is our hypothetical salesman likely to get? In Alaska, 15-20 years in the Big House.

Now let’s examine which BP employees, the folks ultimately responsible for killing 11 employees, pulled time for their crimes:

. . . . .

That’s right. None. No one went to prison. Not a single BP employee, none of its contractor’s employees, not a single person went to prison. Here’s the complete rap sheet:

  • Rig supervisor Donald Vidrine instead pleaded guilty to violating the Clean Water Act, a misdemeanor that likely will result in 10 months of probation and 100 hours of community service.
  • Robert Kaluza, the other supervisor who also was being charged with 11 manslaughter counts, is going to fight a single misdemeanor charge that he also violated the Clean Water Act.

Note the misdemeanor convictions are all for Clean Water Act violations, not homicides. And these guys, mid-level managers who didn’t make the real decisions, may just have been scapegoats. Remember that BP attempted to cover up the extent of the spill afterwards, surely a felony? How many BP employees or BP contractor employees pulled time for their roles in the cover up?

. . . . .

That’s right. None. No one went to prison. Not a single BP employee, none of its contractor’s employees, not a single person went to prison. Here’s the complete rap sheet:

  • David Rainey, a former BP executive, was acquitted this summer of manipulating calculations over how much oil was being released during the 3-month-long spill, and a federal judge dismissed charges that he hindered a congressional investigation.
  • Kurt Mix, a former BP engineer, won a new trial in July after he was convicted of obstruction charges in connection to allegations that he deleted text messages detailing how much oil was spilling into the Gulf of Mexico. He was sentenced to six months probation after he pleaded guilty last month to a lesser charge.
  • And a former manager of Halliburton, which sold concrete to BP, got a year of probation after pleading guilty to a charge of destroying evidence.

This is hardly the first time in U.S. history that we’ve seen a double standard for justice, that we have seen a criminal defendant get “all the justice money can buy.” It’s simply the most recent outrageous instance.

Yes, BP will pay big fines and make restitution, and yes, money hits corporations where they live. But corporations, whatever Mitt Romney may think, are artificial persons. They can only act through their individual employee-agents. And BP’s employee-agents killed 11 people, and no one is being punished for it. The U.S. Attonrey offered the following non-explanation for their decision to drop charges: “Circumstances surrounding the case have changed since it was originally charged, and after a careful review the department determined it can no longer meet the legal standard for instituting the involuntary manslaughter charges.” If you think that is an explanation you’re even more cynical than WC.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of this miscarriage of justice is that no one seems to care. There is no sense of outrage, or fury, that 11 men are dead for criminal negligence, and no one is going to be punished. In WC’s younger days, there would have been demonstrations in the streets; someone might have even blown up the ruins of the ROTC building on the U of O campus one more time.[^1] It didn’t even make the national news.

So a double fail. It makes WC worry.

[^1]:For a given definition of “blow up;” as WC recalls, the last explosion was six M-80 firecrackers wired together. Maybe the gesture counts as a radical act?

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