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BP manager's email listing safety concerns debated at spill trial

Lisa Demer

Two months after one of the biggest oil spills ever on the North Slope, a BP operator sent an email to managers with a long list of mechanical, management and staffing issues at the production center for the Lisburne oil field, home to the pipeline that ruptured.

BP's former compliance officer testified Thursday in U.S. District Court about his inquiry into those concerns -- and his conclusion in April 2010 that "BP management lacks the capability to maintain the integrity of the North Slope production facilities."

The circumstances surrounding the pipeline that froze and then blew open under pressure in November 2009 are the focus of an ongoing federal court proceeding in Anchorage. At the time of the spill, BP was on probation for a 2007 criminal misdemeanor conviction stemming from an earlier, much bigger spill at Prudhoe Bay.

Federal prosecutors argue that BP's failure to prevent the 2009 spill of 13,500 gallons of crude amounts to another instance of criminal behavior and is grounds for revoking the corporation's probation. If U.S. District Judge Ralph Beistline agrees, he could resentence BP on the original case and order new fines and an additional term of probation.

But BP argues that it couldn't have predicted the spill and that it responded quickly, cleaned up the mess, and is addressing maintenance and staffing issues on the North Slope, where the oil field infrastructure is aging and production is declining.

Philip Dziubinski, who started in operations, served four years as compliance and ethics leader for BP in Alaska and worked for the company or affiliates about 27 years in all. He managed employee concerns about the safety and integrity of operations as well as ethical breaches.

He was making $181,000 a year when he learned in March 2010 that he was being laid off. The notice came just days after he told his bosses on the executive team about the operator's concerns at Lisburne. BP says he was let go as part of a national restructuring eliminating a number of middle managers.

A BP paralegal escorting government inspectors through the Lisburne Production Center spotted a cut-and-paste version of the email in the copy room, and wanted to make sure higher-ups were aware, according to BP attorney Jeff Feldman. The employee gave it to Brad McKim, BP's managing attorney, who gave it to Dziubinski on March 2, 2010, and asked him to check out the concerns with field managers, Dziubinski said, under questioning by assistant U.S. Attorney Aunnie Steward.

Field managers already were working on the issues, BP says. The operator who wrote it, Tony Jackson, had emailed it Jan. 31, 2010, to Mikal Hauge, a BP manager for the North Slope whose area includes Lisburne, along with others, according to BP.

The Lisburne center is where oil, natural gas and water from a number of wells are separated. The pipeline that ruptured went there.

'A BROKEN PLANT'

The document that Dziubinski was handed listed 14 issues with specific pieces of equipment, along with broader management and staffing concerns.

"With minimum manning in maintenance and operations we are basically running a broken plant with too few people to address the problems in a timely and safe manner," the operator wrote.

Equipment was in disrepair or absent and there weren't backups. For instance, a key air compressor wasn't working, and a portable one wasn't reliable, risking shutdown of the entire processing plant, Dziubinski testified, reading from the operator's document.

Some of the issues related directly to safety. Dziubinski testified that he was particularly concerned about ladders that lacked protective cages -- a problem that had been going on for two years -- and faulty louvers, which BP said are critical vent-like devices that can close off airways in case of fire.

By then, Dziubinski was well- familiar with long-simmering issues related to maintenance and staffing. Congressional inquiries, consultant reports, internal reviews and a report by the BP ombudsman had examined the troubles in depth. Dziubinski said his office in 2007 took a second look at a 2001 Operational Review Team report into hundreds of worker concerns about preventative maintenance, emergency shutdowns and faulty equipment. He testified that many of the issues had been addressed but that training, staffing and overall maintenance remained an issue.

As to Lisburne, Dziubinski testified that he spoke with Hauge and found out many of the issues specific to that plant were being addressed.

In fact, by the end of April 2010, BP had already resolved half of the 14 items, BP spokesman Steve Rinehart said during a break in the hearing. It was hiring new front-line employees too. The only mechanical issue remaining concerns the louvers, which require complicated engineering, Rinehart said.

Still, in the spring of 2010, Dziubinski was concerned that problems once again had built to a critical mass, and that it took a distressed employee to call attention to the situation, according to his testimony.

He asked Hauge whether the problems were systemic. Hauge told him they were, Dziubinski said. The manager told him that the plant overall was in poor condition because of "budget and resource restraints," Dziubinski testified.

"I was a bit stunned," he said.

If so many problems could show up at Lisburne in one fell swoop, he said, they could materialize somewhere else just as well.

"I just saw this as a continuation of a pattern of behavior by BP," he testified.

BP'S ANGLE

Feldman, the BP attorney, challenged Dziubinski on whether there was any connection between the ruptured pipeline and the maintenance and staffing issues at Lisburne.

Did any of the concerns deal with temperature alarms? Feldman asked. Prosecutors contend that when sensors on the pipe at issue set off cold temperature alarms, operators simply clicked the acknowledgement button rather than troubleshoot the matter.

No, Dziubinski answered.

Did any relate to the sensors?

No.

What about the pipeline itself? Feldman asked.

"Not that I'm aware of," Dziubinski said.

Feldman also tried to discredit Dziubinski. After he was told he was being laid off, he filed a complaint with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration suggesting he had been retaliated against for raising safety concerns about excessive overtime on the North Slope, and a separate one with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission asserting he had been let go because of his age, 59 at the time. The matter also went before the Alaska State Commission for Human Rights.

Weren't all his claims denied? Feldman said.

Yes, Dziubinski said.

After BP eliminated his position, the BP chief of staff for Alaska -- his boss -- first assumed his duties. But BP has since added the position back in, spokesman Rinehart said.

Earlier in the hearing, Dziubinski testified that he had received a good performance review and $100,000 in bonuses just a few months before he was told he was losing his job.

The case continues today and will last into next week.

Reach Lisa Demer at ldemer@adn.com or 257-4390.


By LISA DEMER
Anchorage Daily News