Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Former EPA investigator blows whistle on Alaska oil spill

SEATTLE - A former top EPA investigator who helped lead an investigation into a giant oil spill in Alaska is blowing the whistle to KING 5 News.

The investigator says it should have been a felony criminal case. So was oil giant BP let off the hook? KING 5's environmental specialist Gary Chittim talked with the investigator in an exclusive report.

In March 2006, a ruptured pipeline stained the Alaskan tundra with 200,000 gallons of North Slope crude oil. It was second only to the Exxon Valdez in spill size and damage in Alaska.

The EPA's lead criminal investigator in Seattle got an immediate phone call.

"I knew I had an investigation now to perform and I dispatched one of our special agents up to the North Slope," said Scott West, EPA Special Agent in Charge, retired.

A year before, West says he met with BP engineers and employees who said they had continually warned their superiors a long section of the pipe was deteriorating and at risk of rupturing.

"And he said OK, that leak's happened at a caribou crossing on the transit line, just like we predicted and there's oil all over the place," said West.

As West prepared for a criminal investigation into BP officials, Congress was already demanding answers in hearings and at first not getting them.

"Based upon the advice from council, I respectfully will not answer questions," Richard Woollam, former head for BP Pipeline Corrosion, had told Congress.

The Congressional panel, including Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., accused the company of failing to properly maintain the lines.

"This was a very willful, deliberate, clear, premeditated if you will, decision not to do this known maintenance," said Inslee.

While Congress kept demanding answers, West was pushing forward his criminal case.

By now, West says his case was picking up speed and strength. The FBI, the Justice Department and some of Alaska's agencies were taking part and investing time, money and energy into the investigation.

"This was one of the largest devotions of manpower to an environmental case," he said.

West says the group was looking at possible felony crimes at high level BP officials in the U.S. and Great Britain.

BP continued to clean up and replace lines and apologize for the spill, but insisted it was an unforeseeable accident.

Then suddenly, West and his investigators were called to Anchorage for an unforeseeable announcement from the Justice Department.

"I was dismissed. My investigation was shut down," said West. "I have never seen the Department of Justice shutdown an investigation this strong, moving ahead with so much momentum."

Case closed? Maybe not.

"You won't be surprised if there is Congressional interest in this to find where this thread leads," said West.

It has led West in a new direction. He's decided to close his 19 year career at EPA by blowing the whistle on his most frustrating case.

BP ended up accepting a misdemeanor charge and paying a $20 million fine.

The following statement is from BP:

We have no record that any concerns about corrosion leading to an oil transit line breach in the foreseeable future ever were communicated to BP -- by BP Alaska workers, by Mr. West, or anyone else.

If the conversations that Mr. West described occurred, then we're disappointed Mr. West or someone in EPA didn't come to us to share this specific concern so that we could have addressed it and possibly prevented this spill.

Our interactions with the Justice Department and EPA were appropriate in every way. We offered and EPA and DOJ received BP's full cooperation in their Alaska investigation.

We were not a party to discussions among EPA, the FBI and the Justice Department and cannot comment on them.
We were provided a detailed summary of comments made by Mr. West to another reporter. We read with interest that after a 17-month investigation, West and other investigators could not "realistically charge" BP with a felony and that the answer was "no" when investigators were asked if they could charge individuals.

BP admitted that its processes and systems for monitoring Prudhoe Bay oil transit lines were inadequate, admitted that negligence on the company's part resulted in the March 2006 spill and pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor criminal count.

We are not aware any evidence that anyone at BP violated the law.

The following statement is from the Justice Department:

In October of 2007, BP Exploration Alaska, Inc., agreed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor violation of the Clean Water Act to resolve criminal liability relating to pipeline leaks of crude oil. As a result of the guilty plea, BP Alaska agreed to pay $20 million which included the criminal fine, community service payments and criminal restitution.

The allegations by Mr. West that the Department improperly handled the case are not based in fact and are simply not true. Mr. West implies that something sinister took place between June 12 and August 28, 2007. As with any investigation, there comes a point in time when further investigation is no longer warranted if it does not have a realistic chance of generating useful evidence. In this case, the judgment by career prosecutors was that the case had been sufficiently and fully investigated to reach appropriate charging decisions. No further investigation was likely to find evidence that would shed any new light on the essential facts of the case. The investigators from the EPA and FBI agreed with the prosecution’s approach.

This case was an example of an excellent partnership between prosecutors from Washington D.C. and those from the U.S. Attorney’s office.

The following statement is from the EPA:

"EPA takes criminal violations of the law very seriously. EPA vigorously investigates and recommends charges for both individuals and corporations whenever appropriate. Over the past two years, 70% of the criminals charged in environmental crime cases were individuals, not corporations.

In the case of BP Alaska, after a robust 18-month criminal investigation, EPA, FBI, and DOT, along with DOJ prosecutors, jointly concluded the corporation was liable for a negligent discharge of oil.

EPA, along with DOJ, also concluded that further investigative efforts were unlikely to be fruitful. At the same time, nothing in the plea agreement for this investigation precludes prosecution of individuals, should events or evidence indicate misconduct.

This case was an example of strong teamwork among the agencies and resulted in the appropriate outcome.
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