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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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Abbott supervised a staff of six charged with doing internal audits and making sure the rig machinery was built to specifications and had the documents and instructions necessary to operate safely. It was an important job on one of the world's most advanced drilling platforms.

Yet it quickly turned sour. In a debriefing with the person who last held the post, Abbott was told that BP did not have final design drawings ready to deliver to the crews that would operate the Atlantis in the Gulf, Abbott said in an interview with ProPublica.

Final design drawings, called "as-built" drawings, are considered an essential safety component. They prove that a piece of equipment -- say a shutoff valve or an engine winch -- was built the way it was supposed to be. Those drawings are thus the final checks to make sure the equipment operates properly. They also serve as instruction manuals for emergencies. If there is a fire on deck or a blowout, for example, operators under extreme stress and danger can use the design drawings to find the hidden kill lever that can shut an engine down before it explodes.

Abbott told ProPublica that as-built documents had been issued for only 274 of more than 7,100 pieces of equipment, the equivalent of constructing a house without having an architect or engineer sign off on the blueprint.

In May, Abbott filed a lawsuit against the Minerals and Management Service in federal court in Texas aiming to force the regulatory agency to stop Atlantis operations until BP could prove the documents are in place. He is not seeking monetary damages or compensation.

In the court filings, he said that some of the most critical spill-protection infrastructure, including the wellhead documents, hadn't been approved. None of the sub-sea risers -- the pipelines and hoses that serve as a conduit for moving materials from the bottom of the ocean to the facility -- had been "issued for design." And the manifolds that combine multiple pipeline flows into a single line at the sea floor hadn't been reviewed for final use.

Abbott -- an engineer with 30 years of experience completing design documents for companies like Shell and General Electric -- said the completion of "as-built" documents is standard for the industry. Machinery is designed, approved for manufacturing, checked to make sure it was built properly, and then approved for final use. If BP didn't provide the documentation to its workers in the field, it would be a stark exception.

Yet to Abbott's surprise BP's engineers resisted completing the process.

"I just hit a lot of resistance form the lead engineers," Abbott told ProPublica. "They got really angry with me. They wanted to shortcut the system and not do the reviews, because they cut short the man hours."

Abbott estimates BP saved $2 million to $3 million by streamlining the process.

"There seemed to be a big emphasis to push the contractors to get things done and that was always at the forefront of the operation," Abbott said. "I felt there had to be balance. You had to have safety because peoples' life depended on it. My management didn't see it that way."

Abbot's complaint wasn't the first time the company had been warned about not maintaining as-built drawings. According to BP's internal 2001 operational integrity report conducted in Alaska, as-built documentation wasn't being maintained at the company's Prudhoe Bay operations either.

It was among the issues BP executives were encouraged to fix after the audit of their operations there nearly a decade ago.