April 30, 2010
Whistleblower: BP Risks More Massive Catastrophes in Gulf
By Jason Leopold
Reprinted from Truthout
Profits Before Safety
Whether it’s the multiple oil spills that emanated from BP’s Prudhoe Bay operations in Alaska’s North Slope or the March 2005 explosion at the company’s Texas refinery that killed 15 employees and injured 170 people, BP has consistently put profits ahead of safety.
On October 25, 2007, BP pled guilty to a criminal violation of the Clean Water Act and paid a $20 million fine related to two separate oil spills that occurred in the North Slope in March and August of 2006, the result of a severely corroded pipeline and a safety valve failure. BP formally entered a guilty plea in federal court on November 29, 2007. US District Court Judge Ralph Beistline sentenced BP to three years probation and said oil spills were a “serious crime” that could have been prevented if BP had spent more time and funds investing in pipeline upgrades and a “little less emphasis on profit.”
Also on October 25, 2007, BP paid a $50 million fine and pleaded guilty to a felony in the refinery explosion. An investigation into the incident concluded that a warning system was not working and that BP sidestepped its own internal regulations for operating the tower. Moreover, BP has a prior felony conviction for improperly disposing of hazardous waste.
The incident involving Deepwater Horizon, now the subject of a federal investigation, may end up being the latest example of BP’s safety practices run amuck.
The issues related to the repeated spills in Prudhoe Bay and elsewhere were revealed by more than 100 whistleblowers who, since as far back as 1999, said the company failed to take seriously their warnings about shoddy safety practices and instead retaliated against whistleblowers who registered complaints with their superiors.
In September 2006, days before BP executives were scheduled to testify before Congress about an oil spill from a ruptured pipeline that forced the company to shutdown its Prudhoe Bay operations, BP announced that it had tapped former federal Judge Stanley Sporkin to serve as an ombudsman and take complaints from employees about the company’s operations.
That’s who the whistleblower complained to via email about issues related to BP’s Atlantis operations in March 2009 a month after his contract was abruptly terminated for reasons he believes were directly related to his complaints to management about BP’s failure to obtain the engineering documents on Atlantis and the fact that he “stood up for a female employee who was being discriminated against and harassed.” The whistleblower alleged that the $2 million price tag was the primary reason BP did not follow through with a plan formulated months earlier to secure the documents.
“We prepared a plan to remedy this situation but it met much resistance and complaints from the above lead engineers on the project,” the whistleblower wrote in the March 4, 2009, email to Pasha Eatedali in BP’s ombudsman’s office.
Additionally, he hired an attorney and contacted the inspector general for the Department of the Interior and the agency’s Minerals Management Service (MMS), which regulates offshore drilling practices, and told officials there that BP lacked the required engineer-certified documents related to the major components of the Atlantis subsea gas and oil operation.
In 2007, MMS had approved the construction of an additional well and another drilling center on Atlantis. But the whistleblower alleged in his March 4, 2009, email to Eatedali in BP’s Office of the Ombudsman that documents related to this project needed to ensure operational safety were missing and that amounted to a violation of federal law as well as a breach of BP’s Atlantis Project Execution Plan. The ombudsman’s office agreed to investigate.
MMS, acting on the whistleblower’s complaints, contacted BP on June 30, 2009, seeking specific engineering related documents. BP complied with the request three weeks later.
On July 9, 2009, MMS requested that BP turn over certification documents for its Subsurface Safety Valves and Surface Controlled Subsea Safety Valves for all operational wells in the Atlantis field. MMS officials flew out to the platform on the same day and secured the documents, according to an internal letter written by Karen Westall, the managing attorney on BP’s Gulf of Mexico Legal Team.
But according to the public advocacy group Food & Water Watch, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit, which became involved in the case last July, BP did not turn over a complete set of materials to MMS.
“BP only turned over ‘as-built’ drawings for [Atlantis’] topsides and hull, despite the fact that the whistleblower’s allegations have always been about whether BP maintains complete and accurate engineer approved documents for it subsea components,” Food & Water Watch said in a 19-page letter it sent to William Hauser, MMS’s Chief, Regulations and Standards Branch.
During two visits to the Atlantis drilling platform last August and September, MMS inspectors reviewed BP’s blowout preventer records. Food & Water Watch said they believe MMS inspectors reviewed the test records and failed to look into the whistleblower’s charges that engineering documents were missing. The blowout preventer, however, is an issue at the center of the Deepwater Horizon spill.
An MMS spokesperson did not return calls for comment.
Last October, Food & Water Watch filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for expedited processing, seeking documents from MMS that indicate BP “has in its possession a complete and accurate set of ‘as built’ drawings … for its entire Atlantis Project, including the subsea sector.” “As-built” means lead engineers on a specific project have to make sure updated technical documents match the “as-built” condition of equipment before its used.
MMS denied the FOIA request.
“MMS does not agree with your assessment of the potential for imminent danger to individuals or the environment, for which you premise your argument [for expedited response]. After a thorough review of these allegations, the MMS, with concurrence of the Solicitor’s Office, concludes your claims are not supported by the facts or the law,” the agency said in its October 30, 2009, response letter.
In response, MMS said that although some of its regulatory requirements governing offshore oil and gas operations do require “as built” drawings, they need not be complete or accurate and, furthermore, are irrelevant to a hazard analysis BP was required to complete.
Unsatisfied with MMS’s response, Food & Water Watch contacted Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Arizona), a member of the Committee on Natural Resources and chairman of the subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands, about the issues revolving around BP’s Atlantis operations and provided his office with details of its own investigation into the matter.
On January 15, Westall, the BP attorney, wrote a letter to Deborah Lanzone, the staff director with the House Subcommittee on Energy and Minerals, and addressed the allegations leveled by Food & Water Watch as well as indirect claims the whistleblower made.
Westall said BP “reviewed the allegations” related to “non-compliant documentation of the Atlantis project … and found them to be unsubstantiated.” But Westall’s response directly contradicts the findings of Billie Pirner Garde, BP’s deputy ombudsman, who wrote in an April 13 email to the whistleblower that his claims that BP failed to maintain proper documentation related to Atlantis “were substantiated” and “addressed by a BP Management of Change document.” Garde did not say when that change occurred. But he added that the whistleblower’s complaints weren’t “unique” and had been raised by other employees “before you worked there, while you were there and after you left.”
Westall noted in her letter that “all eight BP-operated Gulf of Mexico production facilities” received safety awards from MMS in 2009.
“Maintenance and general housekeeping were rated outstanding and personnel were most cooperative in assisting in the inspection activities,” MMS said about BP’s Gulf of Mexico drilling facilities. “Platform records were readily available for review and maintained to reflect current conditions.”
Westall maintained that the whistleblower as well as Food & Water Watch had it all wrong. Their charges about missing documents has nothing to do with Atlantis’ operational safety. Rather, Westall seemed to characterize their complaints as a clerical issue.
“The Atlantis project is a complex project with multiple phases,” Westall said in her letter to Lanzone. “The [August 15, 2008] e-mail [written by Barry Duff, a member of the Atlantis subsea team] which was provided to you to support [Food & Water Watch’s] allegations relates to the status of efforts to utilize a particular document management system to house and maintain the Atlantis documents. The document database includes engineering drawings for future phases, as well as components or systems which may have been modified, replaced, or not used.”
But Representative Grijalva was not swayed by Westall’s denials. He continued to press the issue with MMS, and in February, he and 18 other lawmakers signed a letter calling on MMS to probe whether BP “is operating its Atlantis offshore oil platform … without professionally approved safety documents.”
Grijalva said MMS has not “done enough so far to ensure worker and environmental safety at the site, in part because it has interpreted the relevant laws too loosely.”
“[C]ommunications between MMS and congressional staff have suggested that while the company by law must maintain ‘as-built’ documents, there is no requirement that such documents be complete or accurate,” the letter said. “This statement, if an accurate interpretation of MMS authorities, raises serious concerns” and requires “a thorough review at the agency level, the legal level and the corporate level. The world’s largest oil rig cannot continue to operate without safety documentation. The situation is unacceptable and deserves immediate scrutiny.
“We also request that MMS describe how a regulation that requires offshore operators to maintain certain engineering documents, but does not require that those documents be complete or accurate, is appropriately protective of human health and the environment.”
On March 26, MMS launched a formal investigation and is expected to file a report detailing its findings next month.
Zach Corrigan, a senior attorney with Food & Water Watch, said in an interview Thursday that he hopes MMS “will perform a real investigation” and if the agency fails to do so, Congress should immediately hold oversight hearings “and ensure that the explosion and mishap of the Horizon platform is not replicated.”
“MMS didn’t act on this for nearly a year,” Corrigan said. “They seemed to think it wasn’t a regulatory or an important safety issue. Atlantis is a real vulnerability.”
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