Ex-BP Rig Supervisor: Opening Arguments In Pollution Charges

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A Deepwater Horizon supervisor ignored a clear red flag and should be held partly responsible for the 2010 oil spill that blackened the Gulf of Mexico coast, a federal prosecutor argued Wednesday.

         Prosecutor Jennifer Saulino said in her opening statement that Robert Kaluza is one of two supervisors who ignored tests that showed pressure from oil and gas when there shouldn't have been any. Kaluza is standing trial on a single misdemeanor charge of violating the Clean Water Act and could face up to a year in prison if convicted.

         Kaluza, who was the rig company's day supervisor, and night supervisor Donald Vidrine both ignored critical test results that pointed toward a major malfunction in the making, Saulino said. Vidrine has pleaded guilty to the charge facing Kaluza and will testify for the prosecution.

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         "Mr. Kaluza wasn't the only reason" the well blew wild, Saulino said. "But evidence will show that he was one of the reasons," and should therefore be held responsible.

         Defense lawyers argued that Kaluza was only working a brief stint on the rig and now finds himself accused of "the greatest environmental crime in all our history" because he left a critical decision to more experienced people.

         Defense attorney Shaun Clarke told jurors that Kaluza had spent most of his career onshore, and had been working on a different offshore rig when he was sent as a four-day substitute for a Deepwater Horizon supervisor who had to renew his credentials.

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         Rather than ignoring the pressure test, Clarke said, Kaluza told the crew to stop work before his shift ended, leaving the decision of what happened next to Vidrine, who had spent years with the Deepwater Horizon and its crew.

         He also said the main reason the well blew out is that BP PLC and rig owner Transocean had failed to do required 5-year maintenance on the rig's blowout preventer. It should have been taken off of the rig, disassembled, repaired and put back together 4½ years before the accident on April 20, 2010, he said.

         That's a 6-week procedure that "would have cost BP $25 million and would have cost Transocean the Horizon's status as its top rig in the Gulf. So they never did it for nine and a half years," he said.

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         Prosecutors and BP reached an $18 billion settlement of Clean Water Act charges last year.

         U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval told prospective jurors Tuesday that the trial will take 13 days.

         The blowout killed 11 workers and the well spewed an estimated 134 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico before the mile-deep gusher was plugged nearly three months later.

         Both Vidrine and Kaluza were once charged with manslaughter of the workers who died, but federal prosecutors dropped those charges in December. Only four employees, mostly lower-ranking, were charged with individual criminal responsibility for the spill. Most of those cases unraveled before skeptical jurors and judges.

         The government did secure a landmark criminal settlement and record civil penalties against the energy giant BP, which BP said would cost it billions of dollars.

         The manslaughter charges against Kaluza and Vidrine were dropped after former BP executive David Rainey was acquitted in June of manipulating calculations to match an excessively low estimate of the amount of oil gushing into the gulf.

         Former BP engineer Kurt Mix once faced two felony charges for allegedly deleting text messages that prosecutors said were related to investigations of the spill. After a yearslong legal ordeal, he pleaded guilty in November to a misdemeanor charge and received no jail time. He made clear publicly that he believed he had done nothing wrong and felt vindicated.

         – by AP Reporter Janet McConnaughey



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