BP is considering dismantling the ombudsman's office it created to handle whistle-blower complaints after the company's major oil spills at Prudhoe Bay four years ago.
BP created the office to give its U.S. employees and contractors a new way to report problems -- the company admitted it had not been responsive to concerns the workers had raised about lack of proper upkeep on the Slope's aging equipment.
Through the ombudsman, retired federal judge Stanley Sporkin, workers have since had round-the-clock, confidential access to a person outside BP who can launch third-party investigations.
Sporkin said he handles about a dozen new complaints per month. In February he counted that he had received 112 complaints relating to BP's Alaska operations and 90 from elsewhere in the country since the creation of his office in late 2006.
This fall the office is especially busy, perhaps because of increased concern from workers after BP's Gulf of Mexico disaster this year, said Billie Garde, Sporkin's deputy.
But the clock is ticking on the ombudsman's office.
Though Sporkin said he personally thinks corporations like BP should consider a permanent, third-party ombudsman for workers, the London-based oil company doesn't see it that way.
BP says it plans to bring its whistle-blower program in-house at some point -- perhaps as soon as June.
A company spokesman in Alaska stressed this week that BP hasn't made any decisions yet. The company could choose to extend its contract with the ombudsman's office, which is set to expire in June. BP has already extended the contract twice.
The spokesman, Steve Rinehart, said the ombudsman's office will remain open until "we get to a point in time when we feel (our) internal processes are sufficiently robust," he said.
"It's obviously their decision to make," Sporkin said.
BP workers and external whistle-blowers interviewed for this story had varied opinions of the ombudsman office. But one union leader at Prudhoe Bay said the office -- which protects the identity of whistle-blowers and can hire its own investigators -- is the best option workers have to report problems they can't resolve by working with management -- aside from complaining to Congress or the media.
"I'd like to see the office stay. I think it's done some good. If it goes away, it's going to be worse, not better," said Glenn Trimmer, the Prudhoe-based secretary/treasurer for United Steelworkers Local 4959.
NORTH SLOPE LEAKS
Earlier this year, someone leaked a letter Sporkin wrote to John Minge, the head of BP Exploration (Alaska) Inc., updating him on the ombudsman's office's work. Minge asked for the letter to help him respond to a congressional inquiry about BP's additional spills and mishaps on the North Slope since the big leaks in 2006, including the biggest ever on the Slope.
The Feb. 3 letter, written prior to the Gulf spill, provided a rare window into the internal workings of the ombudsman's office.
Sporkin wrote that the company has investigated complaints in Alaska about workplace retaliation, too much overtime work and safety worries at North Slope work sites where there is a risk of explosion or fire.
He also wrote to Minge that several workers had raised concerns that budget cuts planned for 2010 could result in safety problems. After a "robust discussion" involving the ombudsman's office, the company began a "facility by facility" review of the budget that was "very well received by both employees and managers," Sporkin wrote.
The largest portion of complaints from Alaska -- 35 of the 112 -- involved retaliation in the workplace. It is especially a problem with BP contractors, Sporkin wrote. In some cases, contractors have resisted providing information to the ombudsman's office, Sporkin wrote.
Among the cases Sporkin has investigated that have become public are these:
• The recent decision by Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., which runs the trans-Alaska pipeline, to relocate dozens of Fairbanks employees to Anchorage. BP is the largest oil company owner of Alyeska. (2010)
• Complaints that Prudhoe operators had to work too many 18-hour shifts in a row. (2006)
The ombudsman office's second-biggest caseload is in Texas City, Texas, where a BP refinery explosion in 2006 killed 15 workers. The office also has investigated complaints involving two offshore platforms, according to the letter.
In an interview, Garde said the ombudsman's office did not receive any complaints about problems on the Deepwater Horizon rig that exploded in the Gulf in April. "I sincerely wish someone (had called) us," she said, adding it would be interesting to learn why no one did.
QUESTIONS ABOUT 'OPEN TALK'
One person who has been unhappy with the ombudsman's office is Chuck Hamel, the veteran oil-patch watchdog who has bedeviled BP for years with allegations about wrongdoing on the North Slope.
He is dissatisfied with Sporkin's work because of the office's handling of one of Hamel's complaints -- involving an alleged faulty valve -- in 2006. He said he doesn't think closure of the ombudsman's office would make a difference on the Slope.
But Trimmer said workers are afraid of using BP's Open Talk program, an internal system of reporting problems that existed prior to the 2006 spills and is still available. It is also available 24 hours every day and can be used anonymously. "It's a recording, and if you don't feel someone is doing things right, you can call (Open Talk) and you can file a compliant. They'll send their lawyers up to investigate it. Everyone clams up when they see the BP corporate lawyer," Trimmer said.
"As a union, we haven't had very good luck (with Open Talk)," he said.
In his letter to Minge, Sporkin wrote, "The program was created to regain the trust of the workforce which, at the time of its creation, was seriously lacking. The program has worked well and has the potential to raise corporate governance and compliance to a new level. ... This is particularly so where a company has lost touch with the members of its workforce who generally have the best perspective on risks to the company."
In an interview this week, Sporkin said a number of BP executives, including Minge, have been "tremendously supportive" of the ombudsman's office. He thinks other companies should consider adopting the same model.
"If at some point, if we could list everything that happened, it would be an impressive story to tell," he said.
Find Elizabeth Bluemink online at adn.com/contact/ebluemink or call 257-4317.
By ELIZABETH BLUEMINK