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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
But instead of receiving compliments for his prudence, Sneed—who had also complained that week that pipeline inspectors were faking their reports—was scolded by his supervisor for stopping the work. According to a report from BP’s internal employer arbitrators, Sneed’s supervisor, who hadn’t inspected the crack himself, said he believed it was superficial.
The next day, according to multiple witness accounts and the report, that supervisor singled out Sneed and harassed him at a morning staff briefing. Within a couple of hours, the supervisor sent emails to colleagues soliciting complaints or safety concerns that would justify Sneed’s firing. Two weeks later, after a trumped up safety infraction, he was gone.
During the investigation BP inspectors substantiated Sneed’s concerns about the cracked pipe. The arbiter also investigated Sneed’s account of what happened when he reported the problem. Not only did the report confirm his account, but it determined that he was among the best at his job.
The investigators interviewed dozens of workers and according to most of them Sneed “was likely to be the most careful technician on the Slope with respect to safety and quality of his inspections. If there was corrosion in existence… he would find it,” said the report, which was authored by Washington, D.C., attorney Billie Garde and environmental investigator Paul Flaherty and delivered to BP executives in late 2006.
So why would BP want to get rid of one of its most effective inspectors? The report echoed BP’s internal investigations from 2001 and 2004, finding, once again, that BP pressured its contractors and employees in order to save money.
“Many of the people interviewed indicate that they felt pressured for production ahead of safety and quality,” the report stated.
Contractors received incentives to list large numbers of completed inspections, the report found, something Sneed said routinely led workers to falsify their reports. Contractors also received a 25 percent bonus tied to BP’s production numbers. With fewer delays, more oil would be pumped, and more cash would flow to companies executing the work under BP supervision.
The message to workers was clear.
“They say it’s your duty to come forward,” said Sneed of BP’s corporate policies and public statements, “but then when you do come forward, they screw you. They’ll destroy your life.”
“No one up there is ever going to say anything if there is something they see is unsafe,” he added. “They are not going to say a word.”
The following year saw another shakeup at BP. The company had already replaced its chief executive of Alaskan operations with Doug Suttles—the man now in charge of offshore operations and cleanup of the disaster in the Gulf. In May 2007 it also named a new global CEO, Tony Hayward, a 25-year BP veteran.
But worker harassment claims continued to be made in Alaska and elsewhere, and more problems with the Alaska pipeline systems also emerged.
In September 2008, a section of a high pressure gas line on the Slope blew apart. A 28-foot-long section of steel—the length of three pickup trucks—flew nearly 1,000 feet through the air before landing on the Alaskan tundra. Sneed had raised concerns about the integrity of segments of the high-pressure gas line system before he left the company. If the release had caught a spark the explosion could have been catastrophic, said Robert Bea, a University of California Berkeley engineering professor who has worked for BP on the North Slope.
Three more accidents rocked the same system of pipelines and gas compressor stations in 2009, including a near explosion that could have destroyed the entire facility. According to a letter that members of Congress sent to BP executives, obtained by ProPublica, the near miss was the result of malfunctioning safety and backup equipment.
BP spokesman Tony Odone said BP is continuing to roll out a company-wide operating management system that helps track and implement maintenance. He said the company reduced corrosion and erosion-related leaks in Alaska by 42 percent between 2006 and 2009.
As BP battled through the decade to avoid accidents in Alaska, another facility operating under a different business unit, BP West Coast Products, was having similar problems.
For years the BP subsidiary that refined and stored crude oil was allowed to inspect its own facilities for compliance with emission laws under the South Coast Air Quality Management District, the agency that regulates air quality in Los Angeles. The thinking was that companies had the technical knowledge and that self-inspection was cheaper and more efficient.
But in 2002, eight years after the program began, inspectors with the management district thought BP’s inspection results looked too good to be true. Between 1999 and 2002, BP’s Carson Refinery had nearly perfect compliance, reporting no tank problems and making virtually no repairs. The district began to suspect that BP was falsifying its inspection reports and fabricating its compliance with the law.
The management district sent its own inspectors to investigate, but when they tried to enter BP’s plant, the company turned them away. According to Joseph Panasiti, a lawyer for the management district, the agency had to get a search warrant to conduct inspections required by state law.
When the regulators did finally get in, they found equipment in a disturbing state of disrepair. According to a lawsuit the management district later filed against the company, inspectors discovered that some tanker seals had tears that were nearly two feet long. Tank roofs had gaps and pervasive leaks, and there were enough major defects to lead to thousands of violations.
“They had been sending us reports that showed 99 percent compliance, and we found about 80 percent noncompliance,” Panasiti told ProPublica. “It was clear that no matter what was said, production was put ahead of any kind of environmental compliance.”
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