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Judge gives probation inspector greater access at BP

Posted: Tuesday, December 31, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- A federal judge has broadened the powers of a probation officer charged with policing BP Exploration (Alaska) Inc.'s environmental and safety performance on the North Slope.

In a Dec. 23 order, U.S. District Judge James K. Singleton modified the terms of BP's five-year probation stemming from illegal dumping of hazardous wastes at the Endicott Island oil field from 1993 to 1995. BP pleaded guilty to a felony in February 2000 and agreed to pay $15.5 million and serve five years' probation for failing to report the dumping by a contractor in a timely manner.

Based on worker complaints that BP is failing to live up to the conditions of its probation, U.S. Probation Officer Mary Frances Barnes petitioned the court for expanded authority to inspect company property. BP joined the petition.

Singleton agreed that Barnes, or experts she hires, should have unrestricted access to BP and its remote sites, without previous notice, to verify the company is complying with environmental, health and safety laws. The probation runs until February 2005.

Before Singleton's order, Barnes had to notify BP before conducting an inspection.

In her affidavit to the court, Barnes said she had received three major complaints from BP workers involving fire and gas detection and suppression systems, safety valve systems and leak detection systems.

Regarding fire suppression, BP acknowledged to the state fire marshal in June 2001 that it was one to six months behind schedule on testing and preventive maintenance.

The company is now working on upgrading the system, said Marc Kovac, vice chairman of the local Paper, Allied Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International Union that represents about 200 workers at Prudhoe Bay.

Barnes' affidavit also focused on problems identified with safety valve systems. State-mandated tests revealed failure rates on some valves that were higher than what the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission wanted. That prompted a North Slope-wide review of valve performance from January 2000 through April 2001 that identified further problems.

Barnes said there are no benchmarks or standards for surface safety valves so ''a violation cannot be found.''

Kovac noted that after national media articles spotlighted problems with the valves, BP agreed to test and replace hundreds of them.

''I think BP has done a very good job and deserves credit for working on fixes for these systems,'' he said.

But in Kovac's view, it wasn't until employees got the Wall Street Journal interested in the story that BP started paying attention.

BP spokesman Daren Beaudo didn't agree that the media forced the fixes, but he did acknowledge that the company ''has been under a tremendous amount of scrutiny recently'' and that overall it's been beneficial.

''We've learned more about the gaps and the strengths that we have. This makes us a better company and a better employer in the long run,'' he said.

While Barnes noted the problems with fire and gas detection and suppression systems and the valves, she zeroed in on BP's lack of a leak detection system on oil transmission lines running into Pump Station One, where the trans-Alaska oil pipeline starts at Prudhoe.

Lydia Miner, manager of the DEC's exploration, production and refinery section, said Monday that BP has now installed and tested a leak detection system. The state plans to complete its review of the system soon, she said. Preliminary results indicate the system is working correctly.



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