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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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BP declined to discuss Abbott's allegations, telling ProPublica it does not comment on pending legal matters. In a previous statement made to federal investigators, BP said the drawings were updated and in place before the Atlantis began operating. The Minerals and Management Service is reportedly investigating Abbott's claims and Congress has also launched an inquiry that is still in progress.

A BP ombudsman letter written by Billie Garde and obtained by ProPublica confirmed Abbott's allegation that the company had violated its own safety and management protocol by not completing as-built documentation. The ombudsman's office has not yet investigated Abbott's claims about the specific pieces of equipment that lacked documentation because Abbott didn't make that information available until he filed the lawsuit last month.

Shortly after he raised his complaints to BP management, Abbott lost his contract to work with BP.

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The U.S. Coast Guard responds to the Deepwater Horizon disaster
after it exploded on April 20, 2010. (Deepwater Horizon Response)
The U.S. Coast Guard responds to the Deepwater Horizon disaster after it exploded on April 20, 2010. (Deepwater Horizon Response)

Among the most important pieces of safety equipment that BP was criticized for not having in place in Alaska, according to its own 2001 operational integrity report, were gas and fire detection sensors and the emergency shutoff valves that they are supposed to trigger.

When gas leaks from a pipeline break or a blowout near a running engine, it's a lot like stomping on the accelerator of a car: The engine will suck up the fuel vapors and scream out of control. Gas sensors are critical to preventing an explosion, because they can shut down a rig engine before that happens.

Now investigators are learning that similar sensors -- and the shutoff systems that would have been connected to them -- were not operating in the engine room of the Deepwater Horizon rig that exploded in the Gulf of Mexico.

In sworn testimony before a Deepwater Horizon Joint Investigation panel in New Orleans last month, Deepwater mechanic Douglas Brown said that the backstop mechanism that should have prevented the engines from running wild apparently failed -- and so did the air intake valves that were supposed to close if gas enters the engine room. The influx of gas from the well gave the engines "a more volatile form of burning mixture," he said, and caused them to rev out of control. Another system was supposed to kick in and shut the engines down, but that system also failed. He said the engine room wasn't equipped with a gas alarm system that could have shut off the power.

Minutes later, the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in a ball of fire, killing 11 workers before sinking to the seafloor, where it left a gaping well pipe that continues to gush oil and gas into the Gulf.

The investigation into that massive spill is still under way, but these revelations -- plus evidence that BP skipped key parts of the drilling process intended to prevent a blowout to save roughly $5 million -- echo the problems that BP's auditors, attorneys and investigators have identified in the past 11 years.

Over the next few months, the Department of Justice will decide whether what happened in the Gulf violates criminal or civil laws intended to protect the environment. Separately, EPA investigators are considering whether to end BP's ability to do business with the federal government, a sanction that could cost it billions in revenue. The investigators say a pivotal question in that investigation will be whether BP's record over the past decade amounts to a corporate culture of "non-compliance."

ProPublica Director of Research Lisa Schwartz and researcher Sheelagh McNeill contributed to this report.