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Should BP Alaska be placed on federal probation again?

Amanda CoyneThe New York Times
Stephen Nowers photo

Lawyers for both the U.S. Attorney General and BP’s Alaska division are gearing up for a Nov. 29 hearing on the company’s probation status.

Federal prosecutors alleged BP, one of the three big oil producers operating on Alaska's North Slope, is “a recidivist offender and repeated violator of environmental laws and regulations.” They are calling for BP to be placed on probation, which it’s been on and off in Alaska since 2000.

If the judge agrees, BP could face additional fines, and the government may bring felony charges stemming 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.

In the 2009 case, federal prosecutors allege BP violated its probation conditions and engaged in criminally negligent behavior when it failed to prevent the spill. Prosecutors also say the company violated the federal Clean Water Act when the oil found its way to North Slope wetlands, which the feds allege are federal waters.

For its part, BP contends negligence played no role and that the wetlands are not federal waters, and thus not subject to the Clean Water Act. BP said the section of the line that burst in 2009 was the first unplanned “stoppage” in the pipe’s 25-year history.

“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.

The Nov. 29 hearing is expected to last four days, with witnesses on both sides expected to testify.

BP will call a slew of witnesses, including BP employees and a former manager for the U.S. Corp of Engineers. Among other witnesses, the government will use the testimony of a former BP compliance and ethics officer. After he left the company in 2010, he wrote a letter to the government charging inadequate conditions at the site of the 2009 spill, that “budget constraints and lack of maintenance resources have lead to worsening integrity issues,” and that “BP management lacks the capability to maintain the integrity of the North Slope production facilities.”

If the government’s court brief is any indication, federal prosecutors will include testimony related to a list of environmental laws that BP has run afoul of 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 a 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.

BP also faced problems five years ago. 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, which was supposed to end last November, 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 pergatorial probation. The government is asking that it become official.

BP spokesman Steven Reinhart said the upcoming hearing is not about BP’s past crimes, but about a specific incident in 2009 that arose from exceptional circumstances.

“We know the privilege of working in Alaska comes with the responsibility to maintain high standards,” he said.  BP “is a reliable, safe operator and will continue to be one.”

Contact Amanda Coyne at amanda(at)alaskadispatch.com