ANCHORAGE, Alaska — The causes of the disastrous blowout and gas explosion on BP’s leased Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico are a long way from being determined.
Yet already BP’s actions are facing unprecedented scrutiny, thanks to a years-long history of legal and ethical violations that critics, judges and members of Congress say shows that the London-based company has a penchant for putting profits ahead of just about everything else.
Over the past two decades, BP subsidiaries have been convicted three times of environmental crimes in Alaska and Texas, including two felonies. It remains on probation for two of them.
It also has received the biggest-ever fine for willful work safety violations in U.S. history and is the subject of a wide range of safety investigations, including one in Washington state that resulted last week in a relatively minor $69,000 fine for 13 “serious” safety violations at its Cherry Point refinery near Ferndale, Wash.
While BP has said it accepts responsibility for the spill, it denies that it’s guilty of a systematic pattern of safety and environmental failures.
“We are a responsible and professional company,” said BP Alaska spokesman Steve Rinehart. “We work to high standards. Safety is our highest priority.”
A review of BP’s history, however, shows a pattern of ethically questionable and illegal behavior that goes back decades.
BP’s best-known disaster took place in 2005, when an explosion at its refinery in Texas City near Galveston, Texas, killed 15 workers, injured 180 people and forced thousands of nearby residents to remain sheltered in their homes.
An investigation of the explosion by the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board blamed BP for the explosion and offered a scathing assessment of the company. It found “organizational and safety deficiencies at all levels of the BP Corporation” and said management failures could be traced from Texas to London.
The company eventually pleaded guilty to a felony violation of the Clean Air Act, was fined $50 million and sentenced to three years of probation. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration assessed BP the largest fine in OSHA history — $87 million — after inspectors found 270 safety violations that had been previously cited but not fixed and 439 new violations.
BP is appealing that fine, but BP’s legal and ethical problems go back much further.
In Alaska, BP first brought unwelcome attention to itself more than 20 years ago in the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Exxon was BP’s partner in Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay oilfield, the nation’s largest, and shared in the ownership of the trans-Alaska pipeline system, known as Alyeska and headed then by a BP executive who was on loan to the pipeline company.
After a series of documents were leaked to news reporters and Congress that showed how Alyeska failed to live up to its promises to contain spills, that executive, James Hermiller, in February 1990 ordered an undercover operation to track down the leaker.
Hermiller’s chief suspect was Chuck Hamel, a former congressional aide and oil broker in Alexandria, Va., who became a conduit between industry whistleblowers and reporters. With Hermiller’s blessing, Alyeska hired Wackenhut Corp., a security company in South Florida, to catch Hamel and identify his whistleblowers.
Wackenhut set up a phony environmental law firm and attempted to get Hamel to use it to pursue public interest lawsuits against Alyeska and Exxon. They stole Hamel’s trash, bugged an office he used and hired a beautiful blonde to pretend she was an environmentalist in order to get Hamel to talk.