Judge rules BP's '09 North Slope spill an accident

Richard Mauer

A federal judge in Anchorage on Tuesday rejected an effort by prosecutors to hold BP criminally negligent for a 2009 pipeline rupture, one of a series of mishaps and disasters that have dogged the company over the past decade.

In ruling that federal prosecutors failed to prove their case, U.S. District Judge Ralph Beistline released BP from probation over a 2007 criminal conviction. But he warned the oil giant that it was on notice and had better not make the same mistakes that led to the 2009 spill, when about 15,000 gallons of crude contaminated a frozen wetland on the North Slope.

"It is incumbent upon BP to make sure this does not happen again," he admonished.

Beistline's order followed seven days of hearings -- in effect a mini-trial -- into allegations that BP violated probation conditions from its conviction in 2007 for violating the Clean Water Act with a 250,000-gallon spill.

The Justice Department and the Environmental Protection Agency sought to have the 2007 probation revoked and reinstated with new conditions -- additional fines and an extended period of compliance.

Like most other criminal defendants, BP's probation agreement required it to obey state and federal laws. The 2009 spill amounted to just such a violation when crude spilled from a transport line that was plugged with ice after operators failed to address repeated alarms that sometimes lasted for months, prosecutors charged.

BP argued that its workers had followed normal procedures and that the line was engineered properly, so it was not negligent. The company also tried to get off on a technicality, claiming the wetland drenched with oil was not "federal waters," a prerequisite for a violation of the Clean Water Act.

Beistline rejected the technicality, saying at least a plume of oil flowed from the immediate vicinity of the spill. But he agreed with BP on the question of negligence.

"While the Court would prefer a fail-safe system where accidents never happen, it recognizes that human beings and engineering practices are not perfect and that, on occasion, unexpected or unanticipated accidents can and will happen," he wrote. "Certainly, in retrospect, things could have been done differently that may, or may not, have prevented this spill. But in the instant case, the Court concludes, based on the evidence presented, that BP was following accepted industry practices at all relevant times and could not have reasonably expected a blowout similar to the one that occurred on November 29, 2009."

After the spill was discovered, BP acted responsibly in cleaning up its mess, Beistline said.

"An untrained observer would likely be unable to find any indication that a spill had occurred," the judge wrote. "The restoration efforts were impressive and indicate that every reasonable effort was taken to restore the land to its pre-spill condition."

At the same time, Beistline said, prosecutors acted properly in bringing the case to his courtroom.

"There can be no doubt that the Government takes its responsibility seriously to monitor the industry and to ensure compliance with environmental laws. While this entire endeavor has been costly for all involved, it has been worthwhile if only to demonstrate the high regard society places on the environment as the nation's natural resources are harvested," Beistline said.

In a brief prepared statement, BP Exploration (Alaska) spokesman Steve Rinehart said, "We are pleased with the decision and appreciate the court's attention. We know that the privilege of working in Alaska comes with a responsibility to maintain high standards. We will continue our commitment to running safe and compliant operations."

The Nov. 29, 2009, spill occurred in a pipeline feeding into BP's Lisburne Production Center.

BP has had a bad experience before with a frozen line. In 2001, 10,000 gallons of oil and methanol spilled when workers tried to thaw a freeze-choked pipeline near a North Slope well.

BP has been hauled before Congress over North Slope pipeline corrosion that led to two spills and an oil-field shutdown in 2006. One of those spills resulted in the 2007 conviction.

BP's decade of visits to the criminal dock began when it pleaded guilty to a felony in 2000 for failing to immediately report illegal dumping of hazardous waste by a North Slope drilling contractor. The company was convicted of a felony for the 2005 Texas City refinery explosion that killed 15 people. It remains under investigation for the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico that killed 11 people and led to a massive oil spill.

Reach Richard Mauer at rmauer@adn.com or 257-4345.

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