Reporter: Documents Show Years of BP Neglect

ProPublica investigative reporter Abrahm Lustgarten uncovered a series of internal documents indicating BP repeatedly disregarded safety and environmental rules. His findings, published Tuesday in The Washington Post, indicate that BP was well aware of safety and maintenance issues as early as 2001.

Abrahm Lustgarten i i

Abrahm Lustgarten won the 2009 George Polk Award for his reporting at ProPublica on natural gas drilling. Lars Klove hide caption

itoggle caption Lars Klove
Abrahm Lustgarten

Abrahm Lustgarten won the 2009 George Polk Award for his reporting at ProPublica on natural gas drilling.

Lars Klove

"[The documents are] strikingly consistent, which was the first thing that jumped out to us ..." Lustgarten tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "You start to see a couple central themes. And those were: internal criticism for a lack of accountability in the company, lack of support for workers at BP and at BP's contractors. ... [There was also] a consistent emphasis of profits over production over safety and maintenance and environmental compliance, meaning they were putting profits ahead of safety. And finally, a systematic disregard for maintenance of their equipment. It's a process that they call 'run to failure' where they would use the equipment for as long as possible while investing as little effort and money in maintaining it as possible."

Lustgarten says the findings in the internal documents are echoed in the problems that led to the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico.

"We hear consistently throughout the documents about the human resources effect of how BP manages its operations," he says. "[We heard about] health, safety and environment complaints — and these punitive responses to employees who raise concerns — generally we hear that there is a culture of pushing production forward even if that meant cutting some corners."

Lustgarten is a reporter at ProPublica. He won the 2009 George Polk Award for his reporting on natural gas drilling. He has also written for Fortune, Salon, Esquire, and The New York Times.


Interview Highlights

On putting profits ahead of safety

"A 2001 report from BP mentions that the company had not been maintaining its 'as-built' design documents. And these are essentially final engineering documents and drawings to make sure equipment was built to specifications, that it was actually constructed to work the way it was originally intended to and functions properly. You ask just about anybody in the oil and gas industry or in industry outside of oil and gas, and they would describe these 'as-built' documents as absolutely crucial to properly functioning equipment and, thus, to safety. We found just a slight mention of this as a problem in 2001 in Alaska, and then it was repeated by a whistle-blower, Kenneth Abbott — who worked on a rig called The Atlantis, another BP rig. And he is also complaining that BP has not maintained 'as-built' drawings for thousands of pieces of equipment on that Atlantis rig, and, thus, the rig is not equipped to operate safely."

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  • Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and wife Carole Rome Crist (right) stand with others during a Hands Across the Sand event June 26 in Pensacola, Fla. The event was staged across the nation to protest offshore oil drilling.
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    Oil clouds the surface of Barataria Bay near Port Sulpher, La., on June 19.
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    Crude oil washes ashore in Orange Beach, Ala., on June 12. Oil slicks, 4 to 6 inches thick in some parts, have washed up along the Alabama coast.
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    Heavy oil pools along the side of a boom just outside Cat Island in Grand Isle, La., June 6.
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  • President Obama walks alongside Grand Isle Mayor David Camardelle (from right), U.S. Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who is in charge of the federal response to the spill, and Chris Camardelle after meeting with local business owners in Grand Isle, La., June 4.
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    President Obama walks alongside Grand Isle Mayor David Camardelle (from right), U.S. Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who is in charge of the federal response to the spill, and Chris Camardelle after meeting with local business owners in Grand Isle, La., June 4.
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    A brown pelican sits on the beach at East Grand Terre Island along the Louisiana coast after being drenched in oil from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, June 3.
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  • U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announces that the Justice Department has launched a criminal investigation into the BP oil spill. With him, from left: Stephanie Finley and Jim Letten, U.S. attorneys for the Western District of Louisiana; Ignacia Moreno, assistant attorney general for the Environment and Natural Resources Division; Tony West, assistant attorney general, Civil Division; and Do...
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    U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announces that the Justice Department has launched a criminal investigation into the BP oil spill. With him, from left: Stephanie Finley and Jim Letten, U.S. attorneys for the Western District of Louisiana; Ignacia Moreno, assistant attorney general for the Environment and Natural Resources Division; Tony West, assistant attorney general, Civil Division; and Don Burkhalter, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi.
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  • The oil slick off the coast of Louisiana, seen from above.
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    The oil slick off the coast of Louisiana, seen from above.
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  • A worker leaves the beach in Grand Isle, La., on May 30. BP is turning to yet another mix of undersea robot maneuvers to help keep more crude oil from flowing into the Gulf.
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    A worker leaves the beach in Grand Isle, La., on May 30. BP is turning to yet another mix of undersea robot maneuvers to help keep more crude oil from flowing into the Gulf.
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  • Protesters cover themselves with a water and paint mixture during a demonstration at a BP gas station in New York City on May 28.
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    Protesters cover themselves with a water and paint mixture during a demonstration at a BP gas station in New York City on May 28.
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  • Workers clean up oil in Pass a Loutre, La.  The latest attempt to plug the leak was unsuccessful.
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    Workers clean up oil in Pass a Loutre, La. The latest attempt to plug the leak was unsuccessful.
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  • Residents listen to a discussion with parish officials and a BP representative on May 25 in Chalmette, La. Officials now say that it may be impossible to clean the hundreds of miles of coastal wetlands affected by the massive oil spill.
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    Residents listen to a discussion with parish officials and a BP representative on May 25 in Chalmette, La. Officials now say that it may be impossible to clean the hundreds of miles of coastal wetlands affected by the massive oil spill.
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  • An oil-soaked pelican takes flight after Louisiana Fish and Wildlife employees tried to corral it on an island in Barataria Bay on the coast of Louisiana. The island, which is home to hundreds of brown pelican nests as well at terns, gulls and roseate spoonbills, is impacted by oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill.
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    An oil-soaked pelican takes flight after Louisiana Fish and Wildlife employees tried to corral it on an island in Barataria Bay on the coast of Louisiana. The island, which is home to hundreds of brown pelican nests as well at terns, gulls and roseate spoonbills, is impacted by oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill.
    Gerald Herbert/AP
  • A sign warns the public to stay away from the beach on Grand Isle, La. Officials closed the oil-covered beaches to the public indefinitely on Saturday.
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    A sign warns the public to stay away from the beach on Grand Isle, La. Officials closed the oil-covered beaches to the public indefinitely on Saturday.
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  • Pelican eggs stained with oil sit in a nest on an island in Barataria Bay on May 22.
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    Pelican eggs stained with oil sit in a nest on an island in Barataria Bay on May 22.
    Gerald Herbert/AP
  • A bird flies over oil that has collected on wetlands on Elmer's Island in Grand Isle, La., May 20. The oil came inland despite oil booms that were placed at the wetlands' mouth on the Gulf of Mexico.
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    A bird flies over oil that has collected on wetlands on Elmer's Island in Grand Isle, La., May 20. The oil came inland despite oil booms that were placed at the wetlands' mouth on the Gulf of Mexico.
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    Members of the Louisiana National Guard build a land bridge at the mouth of wetlands on Elmer's Island.
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  • The hands of boat captain Preston Morris are covered in oil after collecting surface samples from the marsh of Pass a Loutre, La., on May 19.
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    The hands of boat captain Preston Morris are covered in oil after collecting surface samples from the marsh of Pass a Loutre, La., on May 19.
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  • Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (center) and Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser (right) tour the oil-impacted marsh of Pass a Loutre, La. "This is the heavy oil that everyone's been fearing that is here now," said Jindal.
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    Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (center) and Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser (right) tour the oil-impacted marsh of Pass a Loutre, La. "This is the heavy oil that everyone's been fearing that is here now," said Jindal.
    Gerald Herbert/AP
  • BP Chairman and President Lamar McKay (left), with Transocean President and CEO Steven Newman (center) and Applied Science Associates Principal Deborah French McCay, testifies during a Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation hearing May 18 on response efforts to the Gulf Coast oil spill.
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    BP Chairman and President Lamar McKay (left), with Transocean President and CEO Steven Newman (center) and Applied Science Associates Principal Deborah French McCay, testifies during a Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation hearing May 18 on response efforts to the Gulf Coast oil spill.
    Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
  • This undated frame grab image received from BP and provided by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee shows details of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. BP has agreed to display a live video feed of the oil gusher on the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming Committee's website beginning Thursday evening.
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    This undated frame grab image received from BP and provided by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee shows details of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. BP has agreed to display a live video feed of the oil gusher on the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming Committee's website beginning Thursday evening.
    Senate Environment and Public Works Committee/AP
  • President Obama speaks with local fishermen about how they are affected by the oil spill in Venice, La., on May 2.
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    President Obama speaks with local fishermen about how they are affected by the oil spill in Venice, La., on May 2.
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  • Danene Birtell with Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research tends to a Northern Gannet in Fort Jackson, La., on April 30. The bird, normally white when full grown, is covered in oil from the oil spill.
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    Danene Birtell with Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research tends to a Northern Gannet in Fort Jackson, La., on April 30. The bird, normally white when full grown, is covered in oil from the oil spill.
    Alex Brandon/AP
  • Since the explosion, a third oil leak has been discovered in the blown-out well.
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    Since the explosion, a third oil leak has been discovered in the blown-out well.
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  • In this aerial photo taken April 21 more than 50 miles southeast of Venice, La., the Deepwater Horizon oil rig burns.
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    In this aerial photo taken April 21 more than 50 miles southeast of Venice, La., the Deepwater Horizon oil rig burns.
    Gerald Herbert/AP
  • Tendrils of oil mar the waters of the Gulf of Mexico in this satellite image taken Monday. An estimated 5,000 barrels of oil a day are seeping into the Gulf, after an explosion last week on a drilling rig about 50 miles off the Louisiana coast.
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    Tendrils of oil mar the waters of the Gulf of Mexico in this satellite image taken Monday. An estimated 5,000 barrels of oil a day are seeping into the Gulf, after an explosion last week on a drilling rig about 50 miles off the Louisiana coast.
    Courtesy of Digital Globe

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On the possibility that BP falsified reports

"There's a number of accusations throughout the reports — the reports themselves were very careful to diplomatically approach this topic. They start with a disclaimer that says they did not thoroughly investigate those claims and they did not reach a final conclusion. However, they go to great lengths to repeat the accusations that were made by a number of workers, and the authors of the reports tell me that the inclusion of that information in the reports themselves — given the internal culture of BP and the seriousness of that information — was a great recognition of that as an internal problem. Now, what we heard from whistle-blowers and what's mentioned in several reports ranges from what workers call 'pencil-whipping,' which is essentially going out into the field and quickly filling out inspection forms with a great deal of information faster than you could actually do if you were actually doing the inspections themselves. One whistle-blower told me that he found a colleague had conducted 2,500 inspections on a piece of pipeline over the period of a weekend. And this is in a remote area where each inspection point entails driving a pickup truck for a couple rough miles from point to point, and the volume of inspections that he reported back was simply improbable."

On problems with gas and fire sensors on the Deepwater Horizon

"The three documents we've gotten discuss gas sensors and fire sensors and the pressure valves that would set off as a result of those valves being triggered. This is something that we heard in testimony down in New Orleans about the Deepwater Horizon accident — reports that the engine room on the Deepwater Horizon rig, when there was a kickback of gas from the blowout on the Deepwater Horizon well — that the engines ran wild with the gas that filled that engine room and eventually led to an explosion. ... A gas sensor is exactly the type of equipment that would shut down that engine or may shut off the air intake valves for that engine room entirely — and might not have prevented the blowout, but could have foreseeably prevented the explosion that followed and possibly even the sinking of the rig and saved those lives."

On the regulation of BP

"BP has had difficulty in maintaining its operations and had problems throughout the years before [President George W.] Bush came into office. However, those years were notorious for relaxed oversight of the oil and gas industry and a presumption that the most efficient form of regulation was to allow the industry, to allow BP to regulate itself. So the government culture at the time was to take a step back and to trust BP's expertise and trust BP's own profit motives — to essentially safeguard their own operations. But what we see on a much broader scale is an industry that is completely intertwined with the agencies that regulate it — an industry that keeps its technological information, its guidelines and the deep technical understanding of what it does very close to chest. And government regulators can't always keep up with — and don't always have the laws to keep up with [the gas industry's expertise]. And thus, it consistently maintains the upper hand."

On regulations in the natural gas drilling industry

"In 2005, Congress passed the Energy Policy Act. This was the culmination of the Bush administration's energy policy and the meetings that Vice President Richard Cheney had under the energy task force in 2000 and 2001. The Energy Policy Act essentially created the loophole that exempted the process of hydraulic fracturing from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act. In some ways, it was a clarification. The Safe Drinking Water Act is intended to regulate any fluids that are injected underground. The Safe Drinking Water Act stipulated that the fluids injected for hydraulic fracturing are used in the production of a resource and are then removed — and therefore, don't constitute the disposal of fluids and therefore shouldn't be regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act. However you reason it, the net effect was that the exemption was created, and the EPA's authority to regulate the specific process of hydraulic fracturing was removed. Ever since 2005, the EPA has not been able to invoke federal regulations that govern what tests are done before the hydraulic fracturing process is conducted, how the process itself is conducted — or examining the impacts it has after it's been done."

On the impact of hydraulic fracturing to obtain natural gas

"There is essentially no scientific understanding of what happens to the fractured rock and the chemicals that are left underground after the rock is fractured. Look at a water-constrained future; a future in which reservoirs and underground aquifers are becoming more and more valuable — not just in the West but in the East. Here we have a process in which extraordinarily large volumes of chemically contaminated water — water that nobody would represent as being safe to drink or even necessarily treatable to turn into drinking water — and we're injecting it without a lot of forethought, without a lot of study and without understanding of where it goes and what its long-term ramifications might be."

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