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Years of Internal BP Probes Warned That Neglect Could Lead to Accidents

Internal investigations warned BP for years that the company had created a culture of disregard for safety and environmental rules and risked a serious accident.
 
 
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A version of this story was co-published with The Washington Post.

A series of internal investigations over the past decade warned senior BP managers that the 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 unit that undermined the company’s publicly proclaimed commitment to safe operations. They described instances in which management flouted safety by neglecting aging equipment, pressured or harassed employees not to report problems, and cut short or delayed inspections in order to reduce production costs. Executives were not held accountable for the failures, and some were promoted despite them.

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.

Tony Hayward, BP's CEO, has committed himself to reform since taking the top job in 2007. Top BP officials would not comment for this story, but spokesman Tony Odone said that in March an independent expert reported that BP has made "significant progress" toward meeting goals set in 2007 in response to a deadly Texas refinery explosion. Odone said the notion that BP has ongoing problems addressing worker concerns is "essentially groundless."

Because of its string of accidents before the recent blowout in the Gulf, BP already faced a possible ban on its federal contracting and on new U.S. drilling leases, several senior former Environmental Protection Agency debarment officials told ProPublica. That inquiry has taken on new significance in light of the Gulf accident. 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 BP'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 BP who believes the company has not yet done enough to eradicate its shortcomings.

A 2001 report noted that BP had neglected key equipment needed for 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 intimidating workers who raised safety or environmental concerns. It said managers were shaving maintenance costs with the practice of "run to failure," under which aging equipment was used as long as possible. Accidents resulted, including the 200,000-gallon Prudhoe Bay pipeline spill in 2006, the largest ever spill on Alaska's North Slope.

During the same period, similar problems surfaced at BP facilities in California and Texas.

In 2002, California officials discovered that BP 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 were forced to get a warrant before BP allowed them to check the tanks. The company eventually settled a civil lawsuit brought by the South Coast Air Quality Management District for more than $100 million.

In 2005, an emergency warning system failed before a Texas City refinery exploded in a ball of fire. BP's investigation of that deadly accident -- conducted by a committee of independent experts -- found that "significant process safety issues exist at all five U.S. refineries, not just Texas City." It said "instances of a lack of operating discipline, toleration of serious deviations from safe operating practices, and apparent complacency toward serious process safety risk existed at each refinery." BP spokesman Odone said that after the accident the company adopted a six-point plan to update its safety systems worldwide. But last year the Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined BP $87 million for failing to make safety upgrades at that same Texas plant.