Judge could revoke BP's probation in North Slope spills

CORROSION: Oil giant disputes federal assertions of criminal negligence.

November 17, 2010 

A federal probation officer is asking a judge to revoke BP's probation in Alaska -- which could mean new penalties for the oil giant in connection with its criminal conviction for a massive 2006 North Slope oil spill.

In a petition filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court, federal probation officer Mary Frances Barnes asserts that BP's conduct leading up to another North Slope spill, in November 2009, was criminally negligent. That constitutes a violation of BP's probation conditions set in 2007 for the spill the year before, the petition says.

The court filing sheds new light on the failures leading up to the 2009 spill, which was one of the biggest ever on the North Slope, though it didn't compare to the earlier spill.

BP disputes the government characterization of its operations.

"We've made measurable improvements in safety and reliability," spokesman Steve Rinehart said. Among other things, BP replaced corroded transit pipelines with new lines at a cost of $500 million, he noted.

In November 2007, BP Exploration (Alaska) Inc. resolved a misdemeanor Clean Water Act charge arising from the earlier spill through a plea agreement. The corporation was sentenced to three years' probation and ordered to pay $20 million in fines and restitution. In that spill, more than 200,000 gallons of oil leaked from a corroded, poorly maintained pipeline on Alaska's North Slope.

The period of probation was set to end Nov. 28. But with the new court filing, it will continue until the matter is resolved. That is standard in such cases, Barnes said, speaking generally.

NO OFFICERS CHARGED

In cases involving a person, probation revocation can mean jail time. But because this criminal case was against the corporation, that's not the issue if a judge agrees to revoke BP's probation, said Kevin Feldis, chief of the criminal division for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Alaska. No officers were charged individually.

Scott West, a former criminal investigator with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, has sharply criticized the prosecution's decision to settle the case as a corporate misdemeanor, rather than seek felony charges against top officials. But prosecutors say they went after BP aggressively after the 2006 spill.

A decision on whether to revoke the probation will be up to U.S. District Judge Ralph Beistline. The judge could agree to extend BP's probation or could revoke it and impose a new sentence with an additional period of probation and new fine, up to the maximum allowed under the law, Feldis said. Or he could disagree with the government's assertion that BP acted negligently.

A misdemeanor violation of the Clean Water Act carries a maximum of five years of probation for a corporate defendant. The U.S. Attorney's Office maintains that BP could be hit with five more years of probation, on top of the three already served, though BP is likely to contest that. Fines can vary wildly depending on how they are calculated. The judge also could impose new requirements during probation, such as increased monitoring of oil pipelines.

BP spokesman Rinehart said, "We will answer the government's legal filing in due course."

BIG SPILL LAST YEAR

The case to revoke probation revolves around a November 2009 rupture of an 18-inch pipeline carrying a mix of oil, water and natural gas from wells to the Lisburne Production Center, where the materials were separated.

The breach at the bottom of the pipe was jagged and almost 2.75 feet long, Barnes said in the new court filing. The discharged oil amounted to about 13,000 gallons, and it coated tundra within a quarter mile of Prudhoe Bay. In all, almost 46,000 gallons of crude and oily water spewed, covering about one-quarter acre, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

In late May 2009, a temperature sensor mounted on the surface of the 18-inch pipe indicated a drop in temperature. By the next month, warning alarms started to go off.

"(BP) operators failed to respond to the alarms and failed to investigate or troubleshoot the cause of the alarms," Barnes wrote. The alarm was set to low priority, or "informational," indicating that workers didn't need to respond, she wrote.

It was hard to assess what was really happening. The sensor was mounted in a section of pipe inside a heated structure. The 18-inch pipeline was connected to another, bigger line that didn't freeze, but its oil flow was not monitored directly.

On Nov. 14, after roughly 165 days of low-temperature warning alarms, BP found that ice had developed in the pipe, the court filing said. Fifteen days later, a BP operator discovered the rupture. The ice plugs had increased pressure inside the pipe far beyond safe levels.

"In effect, the pipeline exploded, dynamically deforming and opening a jagged hole in the wall of the pipe," Barnes wrote.

BP should have known better, the court filing said. In 2001, BP experienced a similar rupture in other frozen pipelines. In response, BP recommended that sensors be moved so that they are not inside heated areas, that flow line alarms be reset to "critical," and that oil flow in lines looped to other lines be monitored directly.

The 2001 rupture happened soon after BP took over as operator. For some reason, BP failed to make those improvements at Lisburne.

"What was learned at one spot was not applied field wide," Rinehart said.

The behavior amounts to negligence under both state law and the federal Clean Water Act, the probation officer asserts in the court filing.

NEW TUNDRA

The contaminated area has been cleaned up, according to BP and the DEC. Polluted snow, tundra and soil were hauled away, and BP resodded the area with sections of unspoiled tundra that needed to be removed from another area anyway.

"It looks like it's been freshly sodded," said Tom DeRuyter, DEC on-scene coordinator. "It's a little rough right now, but it looks good."

The state will track the restoration over the next few years, he said.


Find Lisa Demer online at adn.com/contact/ldemer or call 257-4390.

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