AD Main Menu

Was BP employee fired for calling company unsafe?

Amanda CoyneThe New York Times
Alaska Dispatch photo

When Steve Marshall, then-president of BP Alaska, called Phil Dziubinski in 2007 and asked him to come to work as the company’s ethics and compliance officer, Dziubinski no doubt had no idea that it would lead to a federal courtroom, testifying as a whistleblower against his own company of 27 years. Or that he would ultimately find his own ethics under fire by a BP lawyer.

But then again, although Dziubinski had been with BP since 1980, he had never worked directly for one of the company’s big oil fields. Prior to Alaska, he had mostly stuck with refineries and chemical plants.

Too, he hadn't worked for the company when it was under siege for a series of violations that the United States government contends makes BP a "recidivist offender and repeated violator of environmental laws and regulations."

Dziubinski is a government witness in a probation revocation hearing against BP for a 2009 oil spill in its Lisburne field on Alaska’s North Slope. The government is charging that BP was criminally negligent in that spill. At 13,500 gallons of oil, it wasn’t a huge spill -- not compared to another spill, in 2006, that dumped 200,000 gallons onto the tundra. But it was enough for the government to drag BP into court and allege that the company needs to continue to be watched.

BP is also being charged with a federal violation of the Clean Water Act. If the judge finds for the government, BP could face further fines, and will continue to suffer the corrosion of its reputation, a reputation that was once founded on being environmentally conscious, of being “beyond petroleum.”

Dziubinski’s job, he said Thursday as he testified at the federal court house in Anchorage, was to manage ethical issues and monitor employee concerns about safety and the integrity of the company’s North Slope operations. He was charged with setting up formal processes for company employees to complain about work and safety issues and gather all the concerns from past complaints.

The job, Dziubinski testified, was “somewhat chaotic.” But his job performance reviews were good, he said. He received bonuses on top of his $181,000 salary, the last of which was equal to about $100,000 in cash and stock options.

Dziubinski was fired in 2010 following an email he received from an employee who said there was a laundry list of problems at the Lisburne field, the site of the 2009 spill. The email said that the operation was in “unsafe condition”; that the problems “elevated overall risk” and that management did not adequately address the concerns. On the stand, Dziubinski could not point to specific issues with Lisburne that might have led to the 2009 spill. Rather, he said, it was the combination of all of the problems. The “underlying cause,” he said, was that the company lacks a “proactive” environmental program.

After Dziubinski was notified that he was being fired, he sent a letter to BP’s federal probation officer, various U.S. senators and Alaska’s Department of Law claiming "clear and convincing evidence that BP management lacks the capability to maintain the integrity of the North Slope production facilities."

Dziubinski said Thursday he was fired for his age and because the company was "retaliating" after he’d raised safety concerns. Various government bodies that Dziubinski filed claims with against BP, including the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, found his complaints unfounded. He eventually ended up settling with BP. The terms are unknown.

Dziubinski had come to Alaska at a tough time in BP’s history. It was following the 2006 spill -- the largest oil spill on the North Slope -- and after the 2005 Texas City refinery explosion, which killed 15 workers, injured more than 170 others, and resulted in an intensified national scrutiny of the multinational corporation.

Was Dziubinski fired over blowing the whistle on BP or because the company was restructuring and considered him expendable? Most of Thursday’s court proceeding -- and back-and-forth between prosecutors and BP’s lawyers -- revolved around these questions. U.S. District Judge Ralph Beistline will ultimately have to decide. But here’s what’s known for certain:

-- The Lisburne spill was discovered Nov. 29, 2009.

-- On Jan. 30, 2010, an employee sent out an email complaining about the facility. That email included a laundry list of issues that needed to be resolved at Lisburne.

-- Lisburne field management received the employee-generated email. According to testimony from BP, and from BP’s spokesman, the company acted promptly to resolve the safety issues, at least one of which was an OSHA violation.

-- Dziubinski received the email at the end of February 2010. He talked to various managers about it, some of whom acknowledged receiving the email and claimed to be addressing the concerns it raised.

-- In early March 2010, Dziubinski contacted the area manager Mikal Hauge about the email to find out what was being done. Dziubinski said Hauge told him that the problems at Lisburne were “systemic of overall conditions due to budget and resource constraints.”

-- Dziubinski was told March 15 that he would be fired effective June 30.

-- On April 3, Dziubinski sent the letter to the federal probation officer.  

-- On April 21, Dziubinski was escorted by security guards out of the BP building.

During cross examination, BP lawyer Jeff Feldman asked Dziubinski whether he’d been aware that he was fired because of a company reorganization that included shrinking middle management. (Another manager now has Dziubinski’s job.)

Feldman asked whether he was aware of other concerns, specifically dealing with Dziubinski’s job performance, concerns that Feldman said had embarrassed BP. Dziubinski said no, pointing to his job reviews.

He also asked Dziubinski if it was true that after being told he was going to be laid off, he had spent time writing letters and communicating with other former BP employees who had been fired, on company time. Dziubinski admitted doing that.

However, when Feldman asked him if he was fired because he had “breached the privacy” of other individuals by going into their files and getting information, Dziubinski looked shocked.

He had negotiated and settled with BP, and that was the first that he had heard of the allegation, he said.

The hearing continues Friday.

Contact Amanda Coyne at amanda(at)alaskadispatch.com