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U.S. Minerals Service Sued on Whistleblower Claim; Group Seeks to Shut Rig

The U.S. Minerals Management Service failed to act on a whistleblower’s warnings that a BP Plc oil and gas platform in the Gulf of Mexico lacked safety and engineering documentation, an environmental watchdog said.

Food & Water Watch filed a suit today asking a U.S. judge to force MMS, which oversees mineral production on federal lands and the Outer Continental Shelf, to shut down London-based BP’s Atlantis platform until the company can prove the system, one of the Gulf’s largest, was built according to engineer-certified designs and is operating safely.

The Atlantis, which can produce 200,000 barrels of oil and 180 million cubic feet of gas daily, is located about 100 miles south of the runaway well damaged by last month’s sinking of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, which was leased by BP. The blowout well has already spilled more than 4 million gallons of crude into the nation’s second-largest fishery since the sinking occurred April 20.

“It is inconceivable that BP could justify the risk of commissioning Atlantis production without completed design documentation,” Mike Sawyer, an independent safety engineer with Apex Safety Consultants of Houston, said in an affidavit provided to MMS last year. Sawyer was hired to analyze evidence former BP contractor Kenneth Abbott provided to the environmental group.

Absence of Documents

“The absence of a complete set of final, up-to-date, ‘as- built’ engineering documents, including appropriate engineering approval, introduces substantial risk of large scale damage to the deepwater Gulf of Mexico environment and harm to workers,” Sawyer said in his statement.

The Minerals Management Service had no immediate comment on the lawsuit.

BP believes the accusations in the MMS lawsuit are unsubstantiated, spokesman Scott Dean said. “We are aware that the MMS is conducting an investigation in connection with past allegations made about our Atlantis platform,” he said in an e- mail today. “We will continue to cooperate fully with their requests for information.”

Abbott, who supervised BP’s Atlantis engineering documentation database, took what he said are internal BP e- mails and a copy of the platform’s documentation database when he left the company in February 2009. He supplied his materials in March 2009 to the environmental group, which pressed MMS to investigate Abbott’s concerns at least three times last year, according to Kate Fried, Food & Water Watch’s spokeswoman.

Design Specs

One of Abbott’s e-mails, dated about a year after the platform went online in 2007, showed a BP manager warning that incomplete and unapproved design specifications had been given to platform operators in violation of federal law and the company’s own safety policies.

“This could lead to catastrophic operator errors due to their assuming the drawing is correct,” Barry Duff, then an Atlantis project manager in BP’s Houston operations headquarters, said in an Aug. 15, 2008, message. “There are hundreds if not thousands of subsea documents that have never been finalized, yet the facilities have been turned over” to operators who rely on the design specs to safely operate Atlantis, he said.

Thunder Horse

Sawyer, the safety engineer who analyzed Abbott’s evidence for the environmental group, said Atlantis’s purported lack of engineer-certified and “as-built” design specifications “may result in failures as simple as installing a check valve backwards. Yet, a check valve positioned backwards is alleged to have resulted in the near-sinking of the BP Thunder Horse platform.”

BP had to delay production from Thunder Horse, the Gulf’s largest offshore facility, after the platform listed dangerously following a 2005 hurricane that revealed problems with the platform’s ballast system.

Offshore platforms are permanent installations, fixed to the sea floor, that are used to produce oil and gas from multiple wells that were initially discovered by drilling rigs, which are mobile. The BP Atlantis, located in waters too deep for a conventional seabed-based platform, is the world’s deepest moored semisubmersible or floating production platform, according to BP’s website.

Semisubmersible

The Deepwater Horizon, which was owned by Transocean Ltd. and under contract to BP at the time it exploded and sank last month, was one of the world’s largest semisubmersible drilling rigs.

“The catastrophic Deepwater Horizon spill would be ‘a mere drop in the bucket’ when compared to the potential size of a spill from the BP Atlantis,” lawyers for the environmental group said in today’s court filing.

BP said in a statement today that the company’s own 2009 investigation into the whistleblower’s claims “found that the operators on the platform had full access to the accurate, up- to-date drawings (topsides, hull and subsea) necessary to operate the platform safely.’’

The company said its ombudsman made a second investigation into the same allegations, which was “focused on project document and filing procedures and had no bearing on operating or regulatory issues. After this review BP made some procedural changes in the project execution plan, but these likewise had no connection with the safe operation of the platform.’’

‘Completely Erroneous’

“It is completely erroneous to suggest that the minor internal process issue we identified and immediately amended last year on the Atlantis platform’’ diminishes BP Chief Executive Officer Tony Hayward’s commitment to “clear, safe and reliable operations’’ as BP’s top priority, the company said in the statement.

At Food & Water Watch’s urging in February, 19 U.S. congressmen asked MMS to investigate Abbott’s allegations about Atlantis’s documentation deficiencies. The agency said it would issue a report on its findings by May. Eileen Angelico, in MMS’s New Orleans office, confirmed in a brief interview last month that the agency’s Atlantis investigation is slated to be made public sometime this month. Wenonah Hauter, Food & Water Watch’s executive director, said she filed the lawsuit after being “unable to rouse officials at the MMS to do their jobs.”

“We’re asking President Obama to step up and order MMS to shut down BP Atlantis until it can be proven to be safe,” she said today at a New Orleans press conference announcing a television campaign to pressure the government to step up inspections of all deepwater oil and gas production facilities, “beginning with ones operated by BP.”

Tip of Iceberg

“We think Atlantis is just the tip of the iceberg,” Mikal Watts, Food & Water Watch’s attorney, said at the press conference. “We just happen to have information about the Atlantis.”

Abbott, who claims he was laid off for pressing BP to address the lack of “as built” drawings, said he was “dismayed” to hear BP Americas chairman Lamar McKay tell Congress last week that the lack of up-to-date drawings for the Deepwater Horizon’s blowout prevention equipment delayed BP’s response to that disaster. “They wasted half a day trying to shut off a valve that was already disconnected,” Abbott told reporters today.

Last week, a different environmental group sent MMS a formal notice of its intent to sue the agency within 60 days for allegedly approving offshore drilling activities without regard to their potential impact on endangered marine species.

The case is Abbott v. Salazar, 4:10-cv-01759, U.S. District Court, Southern District of Texas (Houston).

To contact the reporter on this story: Laurel Brubaker Calkins in Houston at laurel@calkins.us.com.

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