Oil giant BP facing probation -- again. Federal hearing begins in Alaska.

Amanda CoyneThe New York Times
Alaska DEC photo

The hearing on BP's probation status began Tuesday with Matt Goers, a special agent with the EPA's criminal unit, testifying for the government. Goers investigated for the federal government two spills -- one in 2006 as well as the 2009 spill, the subject of the hearing -- on Alaska's North Slope oil fields. 

Goers spent all day in Anchorage's federal courthouse talking about pipeline build-up, paraffin wax, alarms and whether or not BP was diligent in responding to warnings that there was a problem with one of its flow-lines. Federal prosecutors allege BP, one of three major Alaska oil producers, is "a recidivist offender and repeated violator of environmental laws and regulations." The Feds want BP placed on probation, again. The company's been on and off probation, intermittently, since 2000.

When a corporation like BP finds itself on probation, company representatives are required to visit in person or send reports to the criminal federal probation officer Mary Frances Barns in Anchorage. It's the same process that drug dealers and bank robbers must undergo on federal criminal probation.

This time around, the call for continuing probation stems from a Nov. 29, 2009 spill in which an 18-inch flow line ruptured at BP's Lisburne field, dumping 13,500 gallons of oil onto the tundra about half a mile from Prudhoe Bay.

The '09 spill violated probation conditions BP was fulfilling from the 2006 spill -- the largest ever at Prudhoe Bay. Failing to prevent the '09 spill was criminally negligent behavior, federal prosecutors allege. They also contend that BP violated the federal Clean Water Act when the oil found its way to North Slope wetlands, which the Feds allege are federal waters.

If the judge agrees with the government, BP could face additional fines, and the government may bring felony charges, amounting to yet another example of corporate malfeasance that's plagued BP in recent years.

Flow-lines and unheeded alarms

Goers's testimony got to the heart of the negligence issue: how much did BP know about a problematic line, and should it have been responsive to warning signals that it did have? The 18-inch flow line, the one that ruptured, runs parallel to a 24-inch line. At some point the smaller line became plugged, causing pressure to back up to the point that all of the oil was routed toward the larger pipe.

Because the flow of oil is necessary to keep lines warm, the 18-inch line eventually froze, which lead to increase build up and finally, in Goers's words, a "dynamic explosion."

Alarms in the control center monitor the temperature of the lines. Ten alarms sounded between May (when the line was estimated to be plugged) and November 2009, indicating the line was cooler than a temperature considered normal. At least some of the alarms were as loud as "a train tooting its horn" in the control room, Goers said.

None of this was contested in court Tuesday. Argument tended to revolve around the nature of the alarms that did sound -- and how BP workers should have responded to them. Goers said that if Lisburne workers would have known about the line stoppage, they would have done something about it. But he also said that in interviews he conducted, he could find no clear protocol on what to do when those alarms sounded.

On cross examination, BP lawyer Jeff Feldman of Anchorage accused Goers of "cherry picking" his interviews. Feldman then gave some examples of workers saying the opposite of what Goers said.

Feldman also displayed a chart showing that in the previous year (2008), an alarm for the 18-inch line went off seven times, despite the fact that the line was in fine working condition.

Nobody, however, asked why BP has such a dysfunctional alarm system, established to monitor a completely different kind of problem with the lines. In fact, the types of problems the alarms were designed to identify have been resolved since 1993.

In the end, BP’s own investigation of the incident seemed to be its worst enemy on Tuesday. Goers repeatedly read from BP’s findings, which concluded, among other things, that the "root cause" of the incident was the "failure to recognize and respond to alarm data" from the line, particularly because such data was the “sole” means of monitoring flow. It also read from reports that said that “lessons” learned from the 2001 spill “were not effectively transferred to other” BP facilities, including Lisburne.

A long history running afoul of Alaska law

BP has a history of running afoul of environmental laws in Alaska dating back to the mid-1990s. That’s when a BP contractor, Doyon Drilling, illegally dumped hazardous materials down North Slope oil well shafts. Doyon pleaded guilty in federal court to a felony violation of the Clean Water Act and was fined $3 million. BP was also convicted of failing to report the dumping in a timely manner, another felony. The company was fined $500,000, placed on probation for five years and ordered to create a $40 million nationwide environmental management program.

In March 2006, it was discovered that a North Slope pipeline had been leaking for at least five days, causing some 200,000 gallons to spill. The government said BP had allowed the line to “completely corrode." Then, in August 2006 there was another spill, this one about 1,000 gallons, from another highly corroded line.

The company found itself back on probation in 2007, which was supposed to end in November 2010, but BP's federal probation officer asked that it be revoked before then because of the 2009 spill. Since then, the company has been on a conditional, kind of purgatorial probation. The government is asking that it become official.

The government’s case will last for the next few days, after which BP will defend itself, showing evidence, according to court filings, that negligence played no role and that the wetlands are not federal waters, and thus not subject to the Clean Water Act.

“The evidence that will be presented at the hearing will establish that (BP) monitored the lines reasonably and carefully, and reacted appropriately to alarms that were triggered,” the company wrote.

Contact Amanda Coyne at amanda(at)alaskadispatch.com