ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Of course, Transocean is not the only company under scrutiny for the blowout and spill in the Gulf. BP, which leases the rig, is likely on the hook for billions in damages. And the accident is renewing questions about BP's safety record.
As NPR's Wade Goodwyn reports, it's not the first such incident the company has had to deal with.
WADE GOODWYN: Ralph Dean was a forklift operator in 2005 at BP's refinery in Texas City. His wife and father-in-law also worked at the plant inside a temporary double wide trailer located next to a unit that made jet fuel.
Mr. RALPH DEAN: I felt a concussion, things started hitting the forklift and my seatbelt caught me, but I was looking back towards the trailer where my wife was and the trailer had already leaned over from the effects of the second blast and the third blast just obliterated it and it turned into matchsticks.
GOODWYN: The jet fuel unit had exploded. Dean jumped off his forklift and ran toward the inferno and what was left of the trailer.
Mr. DEAN: And the flames were coming over the top of me. I kept digging, but it just got so hot I couldn't stay there anymore, I thought I was going to catch fire.
GOODWYN: Fifteen BP employees died and 170 were injured. During the subsequent investigations, evidence emerged that BP management was focused on cutting maintenance and capital spending costs at their refineries. In fact, BP managers' performance was measured in part by their ability to meet these goals.
A blue ribbon panel headed by James Baker III concluded that BP had, quote, "A false sense of confidence about safety." Brent Coon was the lead lawyer that sued BP on behalf of the families of the workers who were injured and killed.
The reality is that BP has had a long history of underinvesting and reinvesting in their infrastructure. Deferred maintenance causes things to just wear out and not be replaced. And they're just a fix-it-as-it-breaks type company.
GOODWYN: After the Baker report was released, BP's CEO at the time, John Browne, said: BP gets it and I get it too - I recognize the need for improvement." But in court, Coon says BP fought to deflect blame down the chain of command while denying there were any larger issues about the company's corporate culture and its approach to safety.
Mr. BRENT COON (Lawyer): They admitted it was their fault; they didn't have any way of denying it, but they blamed some low-level workers and said they just didn't do their job right. And the reality was that the low-level workers had very little to do with it. It all had to do with the fact that the plant was just wore out and run down and they were running it without alarms and a lot of the regularly used safety features that most plants have in place.
GOODWYN: This was not the only BP accident that called the company's approach to safety and commitment to maintenance into question. In 2006, the BP pipeline at Prudhoe Bay in Alaska burst, spilling hundreds of thousands of gallons of heavy crude. After first denying culpability, BP eventually turned over internal e-mails that implicated the company. Instead of sending cylindrical probes called pigs through the pipeline to clean and inspect the pipes for corrosion, BP virtually abandoned the practice to cut costs. After the spill, BP pleaded guilty to criminal negligence and paid a $20 million fine. But Bud Danenberger, former head of the Office of Offshore Regulatory Programs at the Department of the Interior says BP has done a better job in the past three years.
Mr. BUD DANENBERGER (Former Head, Office of Offshore Regulatory Programs): My main picture of BP comes from the safety and performance data that I looked at for many years. Especially in recent years they've had an outstanding safety record, very few violations and very few incidents.
GOODWYN: That is, of course, until the Horizon blew up and sank two weeks ago. President Obama insisted that BP would be picking up the bill for the cleanup. CEO Tony Hayward says they will compensate legitimate claims for damage. But in the last few days Hayward has been insistent that the blame for the accident and for the deaths of the 11 men lies not with BP but with the contractor it hired to operate the drilling rig - Transocean. This is from an interview today with the BBC.
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Mr. TONY HAYWARD (CEO, BP Global): The real issue is the failure of the safety equipment, the critical safety equipment called the blowout preventer. That is a piece of equipment owned and operated by Transocean, maintained by Transocean. They are absolutely accountable for its safety and its reliability.
GOODWYN: But of course the blowout preventer was not manufactured by Transocean but by a third company, Cameron, which specializes in the manufacture of this kind of highly complex deep-water-drilling equipment. If Hayward's comments are an attempt to kick accountability away from BP management, it is an echo of the legal strategy the company adopted in the Texas City refinery case. Those legal actions ended with BP paying out over a billion dollars in claims.
Wade Goodwyn, NPR News.
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