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BP Knew: Years of Internal Probes Warned That Neglect Could Lead to Accidents

Posted on Jun 7, 2010
U.S. Navy / MC2 Justin Stumberg

By Abrahm Lustgarten and Ryan Knutson, ProPublica

(Page 2)

Less than a year later, employees complained to an independent arbitrator that BP was letting equipment and critical safety systems languish at its Greater Prudhoe Bay drilling field. BP, in the spirit of reform, hired a panel of independent experts to examine the allegations.

The panel identified systemic problems in maintenance and inspection programs—the operations that keep the drilling in Prudhoe Bay running safely—and warned BP that it faced a “fundamental culture of mistrust” by its workers, in part because senior management lacked a structure of accountability.


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“There is a disconnect between GPB (Great Prudhoe Bay) management’s stated commitment to safety and the perception of that commitment,” the experts said in their 2001 operational integrity report. “Correcting these underlying causes is essential ... for ensuring long term operational efficiency and mechanical integrity. Without a concerted effort to address these basic issues, any other action will provide only temporary relief.”

According to the report, “unacceptable” maintenance backlogs ballooned as BP tried to sustain profits in the aging North Slope even though production was declining. The consultants concluded that BP had neglected to clean and check pressure valves, emergency shutoff valves, automatic emergency shutdown mechanisms and gas and fire safety detection devices essential to preventing a major explosion. It warned management of the need to update those systems, which “have a potential immediate safety impact or that pose an environmental threat.”

It also warned that emergency shutdown systems would need to be operated manually, that there may not be enough staff to do so, and said that even if closed, the isolation valves were known to leak.

“Workers believe internal leak-through of isolation valves is a significant problem and under certain circumstances may pose a potential hazard to workers and equipment,” the report stated.

In May 2002—less than seven months later—Alaska state regulators underscored the panel’s critical findings in a tersely worded order warning BP that it had failed to maintain its pipelines. Alaska struggled for two years to make BP comply with state laws and clear the pipeline of sedimentation that could interfere with leak detection systems. 

Soon after, BP hired another team of outside investigators to check complaints made by workers on the North Slope. The resulting 2004 study by the law firm Vinson & Elkins warned that pipeline corrosion endangered operations on the Slope.

“Due to corrosive conditions present at the Greater Prudhoe Bay oilfield and the age of the field, corrosion control is and has been a major issue for BPXA,” the study said.

It also offered a harsh assessment of BP’s management of health, safety and environment concerns raised by employees. According to the report, workers accused BP of allowing “pencil whipping,” or falsifying inspection data. The report quoted an employee who said BP workers felt pressure to skip key diagnostics, including pressure testing, cleaning of pipelines and checking for corrosion, in order to cut costs.

“To reduce staff workload it was suggested by BPXA management not to rebuild the pulling equipment as often ... and possibly not pressure test the equipment,” BP employee Marc Kovac wrote in a safety complaint filed with the company. “This obviously would increase the potential for equipment failure resulting in equipment damage, environmental spills and injury to workers.”

The report said that the manager in charge of corrosion safety in Alaska at the time, Richard Woollam, had “an aggressive management style” and subverted inspectors’ tendency to report problems on the pipeline.

“Pressure on contractor management to hit performance metrics (e.g. fewer OSHA recordables) creates an environment where fear of retaliation and intimidation did occur.”

Woollam was soon transferred, but the damage was done.

Two years later, in March 2006, disaster struck. More than 200,000 gallons of oil spilled out of a corroded hole in the Prudhoe Bay pipeline into the snow, the largest spill ever on the North Slope. Inspectors found that the steel pipe—the inside of which hadn’t been inspected in years—had been corroded to dangerously thin levels along nearly 12 miles of pipeline. It was exactly the kind of situation BP’s auditors and Alaska officials had feared.

When Congress held hearings into the cause of the spill later that year, Woollam pleaded the Fifth Amendment. He now works in BP’s Houston headquarters. Reached at his home in Texas this week, Woollam referred questions to the BP press office, which declined to comment on the matter.


In August 2006, just five months after the spill at Prudhoe Bay, a pipeline safety technician for a BP contractor in Alaska discovered a two-inch snaggle-toothed crack in the steel skin of an oil transit line. Nearby, contractors were grinding down metal welds, sending a fan of sparks shooting across the work site. The technician, Stuart Sneed, feared the sparks could ignite stray gases, or the work could make the crack worse, so he ordered the contractors to stop working.

“Any inspector knows a crack in a service pipe is to be considered dangerous and treated with serious attention,” Sneed told ProPublica. “The crack could have created a hellacious leaker with people grinding on it.”

Sneed believed that the Prudhoe Bay disaster had made BP management more amenable to listening to workers concerns about potential safety problems. The company had replaced its chief executive for North America with Robert Malone and had ordered him to make fundamental changes. Malone quickly focused on reforming the company’s culture in Alaska.

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By last_boy_scout, June 14, 2010 at 5:53 am Link to this comment

Well, BP’s hypocrisy on the matter of that oil spill
shouldn’t come as a surprise to everyone, taking the long-term history of theirs, into the consideration.

I’ve come to read an interesting article on the history of BP and its predecessors and, which is much more important,
on the issues of their connection to the Wall Street financiers.

Oh, and their shared profiteering, of course.

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By LocalHero, June 11, 2010 at 5:44 pm Link to this comment

This has gone way beyond monetary damages (although the company should be gutted and bankrupted to pay for those too) but the upper ranks of BP need to do long, hard prison time.

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By garyrose66, June 9, 2010 at 10:21 am Link to this comment

BP is a serial occupational killer and a serial environmental destroyer.  That is a demonstrated fact.  The Federal government needs to demand 25 billion from BP to be delivered to the Federal treasury within 90 days, or the US will shut down BP operations in the country.  The Money is to fund GOLF -a Gulf Oil Liability Fund, insurance for paying for all cleanup operations, insurance for personal income and business income losses and medical coverage for those injured and sickened by the oil disaster.  Unless the Federal government takes control of the money it can’t take control of the recovery.  As for BP’s criminaly negligent manner of operating, there is a perfect scientific method to prove they operate exactly as described in this article.  In 1999 BP purchased ARCO, up till that time the biggest Prudoe Bay operator.  (BP kept the ARCO gasoline brand for marketing purposes—so ARCO gasoline is BP in case you want to boycott BP)  This purchase needed Federal antitrust regulators to bend the rules because a foreign entity would be taking control of a majority of Alaskan oil which was technically illegal.  As a 17 year ARCO employee in the environment health and safety department up till the 1999 BP takeover, I knew the ARCO safety and environmental performance in Alaska, and it was outstanding.  ARCO was the gold standard for safety and environmental performance, especially in the 90’s.  In 2000 BP took over ARCO’s Alaska operations and imposed their criminally negligent methods and processes on the ARCO employees and systems.  The thing to do is look at the ARCO Alaska operations from say, 1989 to 1999, and then compare the accident rates and environmental problems within the exact same operations run by BP from 1999 to 2009.  The difference, will clearly demonstrate what my friends at ARCO-BP would tell me over the years, that BP is a criminally negligent serial occupational killer and serial environmental destroyer—just as this article alludes to.  The difference between oil companies and BP is striking, obvious and proves the how management runs a company is directly responsible for the environment and safety performance of a company.

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By tedmurphy41, June 9, 2010 at 7:36 am Link to this comment

If this is proven to be true, then BP’s days, as a viable company, are numbered.

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By felicity, June 8, 2010 at 9:38 am Link to this comment

Welcome to the free-market.  According to the free-market guru, Milton Friedman, corporations have no business engaging in socially beneficial acts.  Likewise, they have no social responsibility, rather they are only responsible for making as much profit as possible.

BP, like any ‘responsible’ corporation abiding by the gospel according to Friedman, has been playing by the rules.  BP is not responsible for the devastation its practices have wreaked on people, places, livelihoods, eco-systems. On the other hand, it certainly has been making as much profit as possible.

If you have chosen the free-market as the ‘best’ economic system going, you can hardly fault BP for operating according to its rules.

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By "G"utless "W"itless Hitler, June 8, 2010 at 9:33 am Link to this comment

I’d have expected to see the freelance industry apologist rico suave on this one apologizing his fingers to the bone on behalf of BP by now?  Where you at, rico?  The American dream needs to be shined up.

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By Jim Yell, June 8, 2010 at 6:20 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Now that they have proof are we going to see criminal charges? If not why not? One more case of the fat and greedy protecting each other. Does our government even exist anymore?

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By esi42, June 8, 2010 at 5:26 am Link to this comment

None of this is a surprise.  I bet all the other oil companies are the same way.  Coal mines too

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By FRTothus, June 8, 2010 at 4:00 am Link to this comment

Off with their heads!

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By RdV, June 8, 2010 at 3:18 am Link to this comment

Meanwhile Obama pushes for more drilling despite the disaster.
Just another indication of who Obama serves and what his priorities are, making anything he says or does a transparent act of going through the motions.
What a squandered opportunity this presidency is.

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