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BP Knew: Years of Internal Probes Warned That Neglect Could Lead to Accidents
Posted on Jun 7, 2010
By Abrahm Lustgarten and Ryan Knutson, ProPublica
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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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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