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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 3)

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.


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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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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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