Final BP Spill Defendant Cleared Of US Pollution Charge

(Bloomberg) -- A former BP manager charged with violating U.S. pollution law over the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill was cleared by a New Orleans jury, thwarting federal prosecutors’ last chance to jail someone over the disaster.

Robert Kaluza, a well-site manager who wasn’t on duty at the time it exploded, was the last defendant remaining under prosecution over the spill. Kaluza faced as long as a year in prison plus fines if convicted.

Kaluza, charged with a single misdemeanor count of violating the U.S. Clean Water Act, had previously beaten more serious charges.

The blowout of BP’s Macondo well in April 2010 set off the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history. Eleven men were killed and crude gushed from the well for almost three months as BP scrambled to cap it.

The U.S. claimed that Kaluza’s negligence was a contributing factor to the blowout and subsequent pollution. Kaluza denied responsibility for the disaster. The jury deliberated for less than two hours before acquitting him.

“We’re just pleased and thankful that the jury carefully considered the evidence and came to a just verdict,” Kaluza’s lawyers said in a joint statement Thursday.

Peter Carr, a Justice Department spokesman, declined to comment on the verdict.

In the wake of the spill, BP pleaded guilty and agreed in 2012 to pay $4 billion for multiple counts, including manslaughter. Only four employees, including Kaluza, were prosecuted. No one in BP’s onshore chain of command for the well was charged and no individual so far has gone to jail.

The only conviction at trial, over mishandling evidence after the spill, was overturned, with the defendant, Kurt Mix, later pleading guilty to a minor charge. David Rainey, the highest-ranking BP executive charged, was acquitted of downplaying spill-size estimates.

Kaluza was indicted in 2012 along with another well-site manager, Donald Vidrine. They were initially charged with 11 counts of seamen’s manslaughter and 11 counts of involuntary manslaughter. The seamen’s manslaughter charges against both were thrown out and the U.S. dropped the involuntary manslaughter in December.

Vidrine pleaded guilty in December to the pollution charge. His deal with U.S. prosecutors calls for a sentence of 10 months’ probation, 100 hours of community service and $50,000 in restitution for fouling the water in the gulf. Vidrine is scheduled to be sentenced in April.

The U.S. claimed that Kaluza and Vidrine misinterpreted a critical pressure test on the well before the blowout, concluding it had been safely sealed from leaks when oil and gas were actually beginning to seep into the well from the underground reservoir. Vidrine testified as a prosecution witness at the trial. Kaluza never testified.

Kaluza ignored an alert that showed pressure on one line, indicating potential trouble, Jennifer Saulino, a federal prosecutor, said Thursday. “A reasonably prudent person doesn’t pick the line that says there isn’t a disaster, and just ignores the line that says there is.’’

Others connected to the well were also negligent, Saulino said. That didn’t clear Kaluza of responsibility, she said. “There can be more than one proximate cause. If Mr. Kaluza hadn’t made the decisions he made, none of the rest of it would have happened.”

Kaluza wasn’t on duty when the final decisions were made that set off the explosion and he had nothing to do with poor maintenance of safety systems for the project, his attorneys told jurors.

Multiple pieces of safety equipment weren’t working the night of the explosion, including a blowout detector, kick detector and emergency disconnect system, David Gerger, his lawyer, said Thursday.

“Each of these by themselves could have saved that rig,” he said. The blowout protector hadn’t undergone maintenance for four years, contrary to federal law, Gerger said. “That’s the rig they sent Bob Kaluza on,” Gerger said. Kaluza wasn’t aware that these systems weren’t working, he said. “You wouldn’t have gone on a rig in that condition.”

The case is U.S. v. Kaluza, 12-cr-00265, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Louisiana (New Orleans).

--With assistance from Laurel Calkins. To contact the reporters on this story: Margaret Cronin Fisk in Detroit at mcfisk@bloomberg.net ;Della Hasselle in New Orleans at della.louise@gmail.comTo contact the editors responsible for this story: Michael Hytha at mhytha@bloomberg.net Peter Blumberg.

Copyright 2016 Bloomberg News.

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