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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.

California officials alleged in 2002 that the company had falsified inspections of fuel tanks at a Los Angeles area refinery and that more than 80 percent of the facilities didn't meet requirements to maintain storage tanks without leaks or damage. Inspectors had to get a warrant before BP allowed them to check the tanks. The company eventually settled a lawsuit brought by the South Coast Air Quality Management District for more than $100 million.

Three years later, a Texas City refinery exploded, killing 15 people. An investigation found that a warning system failed, and independent experts found that "significant process safety issues exist at all five U.S. refineries, not just Texas City."

BP spokesman Odone said that after the accident, the company adopted a plan to update its safety systems worldwide. But last year, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined the firm $87 million for not improving safety at that same Texas plant.

'Environmental criminal'

BP has had more high-profile accidents than any other company in recent years. And now, with the disaster in the gulf, independent experts say the pervasiveness of the company's problems, in multiple locales and different types of facilities, is striking.

"They are a recurring environmental criminal and they do not follow U.S. health safety and environmental policy," said Jeanne Pascal, a former EPA lawyer who led its BP investigations. Since the late 1960s, the company has pulled oil from under Alaska, usually without problems. But when it pleaded guilty in 1999 to illegal dumping at an offshore drilling field there, it drew fresh scrutiny and set off a cycle of attempted -- and seemingly failed -- reforms that continued over the next decade.

To avoid having its Alaska division debarred -- the official term for a contract cancellation with the federal government -- the firm agreed to a five-year probationary plan with the EPA. BP would reorganize its environmental management, establish protections for employees who speak out about safety issues, and change its approach to risk and regulatory compliance.

Less than a year later, employees complained to an independent arbitrator that the company was letting equipment and critical safety systems languish at its Greater Prudhoe Bay drilling field. BP hired independent experts to investigate.

The panel identified systemic problems in maintenance and inspections -- 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.

"There is a disconnect between GPB management's stated commitment to safety and the perception of that commitment," the experts said in their 2001 report.

The report said that "unacceptable" maintenance backlogs ballooned as BP tried to sustain North Slope profits despite declining production. The consultants concluded that the company had neglected to clean and check valves, shutdown mechanisms and detection devices essential to preventing explosions.

In May 2002 -- less than seven months later -- Alaska state regulators warned BP that it had failed to maintain its pipelines. Alaska struggled for two years to make the firm comply with state laws and clear the pipeline of sedimentation that could interfere with leak detection.

Soon after, BP hired another team of outside investigators to look into worker complaints on the North Slope. The resulting 2004 study by the law firm Vinson & Elkins warned that pipeline corrosion endangered operations.

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