Few Americans have ever heard of Robert Kaluza and Donald Vidrine. They have spent much of their lives offshore, drilling holes in the seafloor for the oil giant BP. Over many decades in the business, each rose to the rank of well site leader, a job commonly known on a rig as “the company man.”
Their lives changed irreversibly on April 20, 2010, a calm, clear day in the Gulf of Mexico. Kaluza and Vidrine took turns supervising the drilling operation on a rig named Deepwater Horizon.
Now they are criminal defendants, facing their first court appearance Wednesday before a federal judge in New Orleans. After 21/2 years of investigation by the Justice Department, a federal grand jury this month indicted Kaluza, 62, and Vidrine, 65, on multiple felony counts of manslaughter in the fiery blowout that killed 11 crewmen and caused the worst oil spill in American history.
The charges against Kaluza and Vidrine are part of the complex and contentious legal aftermath of the disaster. The legal battles will probably take years to resolve. So far, Kaluza and Vidrine are the only individuals facing criminal charges for the blowout itself.
Their attorneys say their clients are scapegoats and will plead not guilty.
“Every investigative report has said there were multiple failures at multiple levels at multiple companies,” said Shaun Clarke, Kaluza’s attorney. “So it is difficult for me to understand why the federal government decided to single out two guys working on a rig.”
Vidrine’s attorney, Bob Habans, said of his client: “It is almost inconceivable that any fair-minded person would blame this hardworking and diligent man for one of the most catastrophic events in the history of the oil business.”
The blowout of the Macondo well sent an estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil into the gulf, polluted beaches and marshes, killed wildlife and roiled the region’s economy. Culpability remains a matter of robust litigation and legal maneuvering among powerful companies.
At the corporate level, BP has agreed to plead guilty to multiple counts of manslaughter, admitting to simple negligence but not gross negligence — a key distinction in the legal battle. The plea deal was reached after extensive negotiations between BP attorneys and the Justice Department’s criminal division, as well as negotiations with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
BP will pay about $4.5 billion in fines as part of the deal, which still requires court approval.
But even with the criminal case against BP apparently resolved, there remains a multibillion-dollar civil case against the company that is grinding toward a Feb. 25 trial date. That is a multi-jurisdictional case involving federal and state claims and more private lawsuits, with U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier presiding over the entire affair in New Orleans.
Under the Clean Water Act, BP can be fined $1,100 to $4,400 per barrel spilled, depending on the degree of negligence determined by the court. The government estimates that about 4 million barrels of oil were never captured, skimmed or burned — an estimate BP has disputed — and thus BP could face Clean Water Act civil penalties of nearly $18 billion if found guilty of gross negligence.
The company has apologized for its role in the disaster and has agreed to a roughly $7.8 billion settlement with a large group of private plaintiffs. But the company vows to vigorously defend itself in the remaining civil cases.
Although the presidential Oil Spill Commission concluded that an overarching “failure of management” was at the root of the spill, no one working onshore for BP faces any charge regarding the design of the well or the protocols for the drilling. Nor have charges been filed against anyone working for BP’s contractors, which included Transocean, the owner of the rig, and Halliburton, which cemented the Macondo well.
The plea deal with BP does not preclude further criminal charges against individuals, and the Justice Department has said the criminal investigation is not closed. The department would not comment on the assertion by the attorneys for Vidrine and Kaluza that their clients were being scapegoated.
The grand jury has also charged one BP executive, David Rainey, with obstruction of Congress for allegedly misleading a congressional subcommittee about the well’s flow rate. He also faces arraignment Wednesday and will plead not guilty, his attorneys have said.
The manslaughter charges against Kaluza and Vidrine — and BP’s agreement to plead guilty to manslaughter — hinge entirely on a single procedure that occurred on the day of the disaster. It was called “the negative test.”