NEW ORLEANS – A judge and attorneys questioned jurors Tuesday as a former BP rig supervisor went on trial for a misdemeanor pollution charge from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.
Robert Kaluza, 65, is likely the last person to stand trial after a sweeping Justice Department investigation into the rig explosion and well blowout. Millions of gallons of oil spewed into the Gulf of Mexico, and BP PLC and the U.S. government worked for nearly three months to stop the gusher.
Each prospective juror had earlier filled out a 16-page questionnaire and pledged not to research, read or look into any information that might be related to Kaluza's case. One of the 48 questions asked was their opinions about oil companies, BP and co-defendants Transocean and Halliburton. They also were asked about drilling for oil in the Gulf of Mexico, and whether they, family members or close friends were affected by the 2010 explosion or oil spill.
If attorneys or the judge had questions about their answers, they were called up to a table where the judge and attorneys sat to ask them for details. Questions and answers were not audible to others in the courtroom.
Prosecutors say Kaluza and Donald Vidrine, another rig supervisor, botched a "negative pressure test" and missed clear signs of trouble before the blowout.
Both had faced more serious charges of manslaughter of 11 workers who died when the rig exploded, but federal prosecutors backed off those charges. In terms of individual criminal responsibility for the spill, only four mostly lower-ranking employees faced charges, and those cases have unraveled before skeptical jurors and judges.
The government did secure a landmark criminal settlement and record civil penalties against the corporation, which BP said would cost it billions of dollars.
Kaluza's trial is for a single charge of violating the Clean Water Act. Vidrine pleaded guilty to the same charge last year. He has not been sentenced yet, but it's likely no one will serve any prison time related to the spill.
"From Bob's standpoint, he's charged with a crime he didn't commit, and he's going to go to trial to clear his name," Kaluza's attorney Shaun Clarke said in December.
The manslaughter charges against Kaluza and Vidrine were dropped after the June acquittal of former BP executive David Rainey. A jury found him not guilty of manipulating calculations to match a far-too-low estimate of the amount of oil spewing 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 last 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.