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BP Atlantis rig plans never received proper approvals, former contractor says

By David S. Hilzenrath
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 17, 2010; 3:05 PM

Sensitive plans for the BP Atlantis rig in the Gulf of Mexico never received proper BP engineering approvals, leaving the deepwater oil and gas operation at risk of disaster, a former contractor for the facility says.

"The overwhelming majority of documents and drawings had never received any engineering approval at any phase of development," Kenneth W. Abbott, who was fired in February 2009, says in testimony prepared for delivery Thursday to a House subcommittee.

Abbott reported the issue to the Interior Department and filed a lawsuit under a federal whistleblower law.

The Minerals Management Service has inspected the Atlantis and found no violations, Robert V. Abbey, acting director of the agency, told the subcommittee Thursday. One inspection found a leaking valve that was fixed the same day, Abbey said.

Abbott's allegations predate the April 20 explosion aboard another BP rig, the Deepwater Horizon, and BP addressed the issue in a May 17 news release.

BP said it thoroughly investigated and found to be "without substance" claims that the Atlantis operated with incomplete and inaccurate engineering documents.

Abbott's testimony was prepared for the Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, which is examining the Deepwater Horizon disaster and the performance of the Minerals Management Service.

Abbott, who started work on the Atlantis project in August 2008, said the lapses involved piping and instrument diagrams that are supposed to document the structure of subsea equipment as it was actually constructed. Without the documents, the operators of the production rig do not have a good driver's manual as to how the rig should work, Abbott told the panel.

BP operators were demanding copies of the documents "and we did not have them," he says in his prepared statement.

As a result of the problems, there was no way to tell whether components had been tested, Abbott says.

In an August 2008 email, Abbott's predecessor opposed providing the documents to the operations staff because they were incomplete and unapproved.

"This could lead to catastrophic Operator errors due to their assuming the drawing is correct," the email said. "Turning over incomplete drawings to the Operator for their use is a fundamental violation of basic Document Control . . . and Process Safety Regulations," the email said.

In his testimony, Abbott says the missing documentation involved such important aspects of the rig as subsea drilling components. Almost 90 percent of 7,000 drawings and documents lacked approval, he says.

Abbott worked in the BP project management office for the Atlantis, and his job included managing engineering documents. He said his efforts to fix the problem made him unpopular.

"I have never seen another company with the kind of widespread disregard for proper engineering and safety procedures that I saw at BP," Abbott says in the testimony.

At one point BP vetoed a corrective plan because it would have cost $2 million, Abbott alleged.

In an April 2009 letter to Attorney General Eric Holder and the acting U.S. attorney in Houston, a lawyer for Abbott said that BP had extracted billions of dollars of fossil fuel from below the Gulf of Mexico based on false certifications to the government that the company was in compliance with federal regulations.

"The consequence of this non-compliance is that the operation of the platform not only violates federal law . . . it also puts the environment and human lives at great risk," lawyer David L. Perry wrote.

In an April 13 memo to Abbott, a deputy ombudsman for BP wrote that Abbott's concerns "about the project not following the terms of its own Project Execution Plan were substantiated." The memo says those concerns "were not unique" to Abbott and did not drive any action against him.

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