Substantial safety concerns raised about the Atlantis, another BP oil rig

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post staff writer
Saturday, May 15, 2010; 11:47 PM

The company most closely linked to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill also owns a rig that operated with incomplete and inaccurate engineering documents, according to records and interviews, a deficiency that one company official warned could "lead to catastrophic operator errors."

An independent firm hired by BP wrote in an April letter that it had substantiated allegations by a former contractor that the petroleum company was violating its own policies on the Atlantis, which is stationed more than 150 miles from New Orleans in 7,070 feet of water. Billie Pirner Garde, a deputy ombudsman, wrote to contractor Kenneth Abbott and stated that multiple workers on the Atlantis had raised similar safety concerns.

"The concerns that you expressed regarding the status of the drawings upgrade project were not unique to you," Garde wrote. "It was a challenge to the Project and of concern to others who raised the concern before you worked there, while you were there and after you left."

In February, two months before an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon, more than a dozen members of Congress called on the Minerals Management Service, the federal agency that oversees offshore drilling, to investigate Abbott's complaints. An agency probe is ongoing.

An attorney for BP wrote a letter to Congress in January saying the company was compliant with all federal requirements and the Atlantis has been operating so safely that it received an MMS award, the Associated Press reported.

According to one document unearthed in the course of a dispute between Abbott and the oil company, BP production member Barry C. Duff wrote in an August 2008 e-mail that "hundreds if not thousands" of engineering documents were incomplete, and suggested these insufficient safety records "could lead to catastrophic operator errors."

The documents were first reported by the Associated Press on Saturday afternoon.

David Perry, a lawyer who has represented Abbott in his efforts to shut down the Atlantis, said his client was stunned to discover the rig had "incomplete, if not inaccurate engineering documents" when he started working for the company in September 2008, roughly a year after the operation began. Abbott helped oversee BP's safety compliance and the database that contained the necessary safety records as part of the project's management team.

"All of the documents should have been completed before they started production," Perry said in an interview. "He walked in the door and there was a problem."

Abbott, he said, "feels like his efforts to fix the problem got him terminated."

In the letter to Abbott, Garde dismissed the idea that he had been retaliated against. She also wrote that the "Project Execution Plan" BP had violated was "a BP internal document, not a regulatory requirement."

Abbott and his lawyers have appealed repeatedly to senior Interior Department officials to shut down operations on the rig. "The only way to protect the Gulf of Mexico marine environment from this potential for catastrophe is to halt production from this platform until the massive safety failures related to Project Atlantis are rectified," Perry wrote in May 2009 to an attorney-adviser in the mineral resources division in Interior's solicitor general's office.

Late Saturday, BP spokesman Andrew Gowers said the company had taken Abbott's allegations seriously and investigated them thoroughly.

"It is my understanding that our investigation found that the operators on the platform had full access to the accurate, up-to-date drawings [topsides, hull and subsea] necessary to operate the platform safely," he wrote. "I also understand that there was an issue around whether the electronic filing of those drawings was consistent with the project execution plan, but the key fact is that the operators on the platform had access to the drawings they needed for safe operation."

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