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Advocate: With 2 new plea deals, government's effort to hold individuals accountable in BP spill ends with whimper

RICHARD THOMPSON AND GORDON RUSSELL

RTHOMPSON@THEADVOCATE.COM, GRUSSELL@THEADVOCATE.COM

FILE - In this April 21, 2010, file photo, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig burns in the Gulf of Mexico, more than 50 miles southeast of Venice, La. More than two years after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill in 2010, BP agreed to plead guilty to several charges, including lying to Congress about how much oil was spewing from the blown-out well.
FILE - In this April 21, 2010, file photo, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig burns in the Gulf of Mexico, more than 50 miles southeast of Venice, La. More than two years after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill in 2010, BP agreed to plead guilty to several charges, including lying to Congress about how much oil was spewing from the blown-out well. AP Photo

In a startling development, federal prosecutors have moved to drop all of the felony charges they filed against two BP supervisors who were aboard the Deepwater Horizon when the rig exploded in April 2010, killing 11 men and setting off the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history.

Donald Vidrine and Robert Kaluza had each faced 11 counts of manslaughter related to those deaths. Now, the government is dropping those charges and allowing the two to plead to a single count apiece of violating the federal Clean Water Act, a misdemeanor, according to The New Orleans Advocate.

The government’s decision to let the two men to plead to such a dramatically reduced charge is the latest setback in prosecutors’ efforts to hold individuals, not just corporate entities, accountable for the BP disaster.

Vidrine appeared in federal court Wednesday morning to enter a guilty plea to the new charge. His plea deal calls for 10 months of probation, 100 hours of community service and a $50,000 in restitution, to be paid to a wildlife fund.

U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval set a sentencing hearing for April.

Court records do not show a change-of-plea hearing scheduled for Kaluza yet, but it appears he has worked out a similar deal.

Kaluza and Vidrine were indicted in 2012, and they faced by far the most serious charges of any brought by the government in connection with the Macondo well blowout. Prosecutors initially charged them not only with 11 counts apiece of manslaughter, but also with 11 counts apiece of seaman’s manslaughter, a separate crime that involves death on the high seas.

They charged that the two men misinterpreted a key safety test that portended trouble for the Macondo well, and that their negligence led to the blowout.

Duval threw out the seaman’s manslaughter charges in 2013.

Skeptics had long questioned the case, in part because Vidrine and Kaluza were aboard the rig themselves, and thus imperiled by the possibility of a blowout.

While BP admitted criminal conduct and agreed to pay about $20 billion in fines in a record-setting settlement, the government’s efforts to hold individuals criminally liable for the spill have mostly failed.

All told, five people were charged with crimes connected to the spill, and it does not appear that any of them will serve any jail time.

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