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Reports at BP over years find history of problems

Cleanup and containment efforts continue at the Gulf of Mexico site of the oil spill following the Deepwater Horizon explosion.

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By Abrahm Lustgarten and Ryan Knutson
Tuesday, June 8, 2010

ProPublica

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A series of internal investigations over the past decade warned senior BP managers that the oil company repeatedly disregarded safety and environmental rules and risked a serious accident if it did not change its ways.

The confidential inquiries, which have not previously been made public, focused on a rash of problems at BP's Alaska oil-drilling operations. They described instances in which management flouted safety by neglecting aging equipment, pressured employees not to report problems and cut short or delayed inspections to reduce production costs.

Similar themes about BP operations elsewhere were sounded in interviews with former employees, in lawsuits and little-noticed state inquiries, and in e-mails obtained by ProPublica. Taken together, these documents portray a company that systemically ignored its own safety policies across its North American operations -- from Alaska to the Gulf of Mexico to California and Texas. Executives were not held accountable for the failures, and some were promoted despite them.

Tony Hayward has committed himself to reform since becoming BP's chief executive in 2007. Under him, the company has worked to implement an operating safety system to create "responsible operations at every BP operation," said Toby Odone, a company spokesman. BP has used the system at 80 percent of its operations and expects to bring it to the rest by the end of the year, he said.

Odone said the notion that BP has ongoing problems addressing worker concerns is "essentially groundless."

Because of its string of accidents before the April 20 blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, BP faced a possible ban on its federal contracting and on new U.S. drilling leases, several senior former Environmental Protection Agency department officials told ProPublica. That inquiry has taken on new significance in light of the oil spill in the gulf. One key question the EPA will consider is whether the company's leadership can be trusted and whether BP's culture can change.

The reports detailing the firm's Alaska investigations -- conducted by outside lawyers and an internal BP committee in 2001, 2004 and 2007 -- were provided to ProPublica by a person close to the company who thinks it has not done enough to fix its shortcomings.

A 2001 report noted that BP had neglected key equipment needed for an emergency shutdown, including safety shutoff valves and gas and fire detectors similar to those that could have helped prevent the fire and explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig in the gulf.

A 2004 inquiry found a pattern of the company intimidating workers who raised safety or environmental concerns. It said managers shaved maintenance costs by using aging equipment for as long as possible. Accidents resulted, including the 200,000-gallon Prudhoe Bay pipeline spill in 2006 -- the largest spill on Alaska's North Slope -- which was blamed on a corroded pipeline.

Similar problems surfaced at BP facilities in California and Texas.


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