A whistleblower filed a lawsuit today to force the federal government to halt operations at another massive BP oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico, alleging that BP never reviewed critical engineering designs for the operation and is therefore risking another catastrophic accident that could "dwarf" the company's Deepwater Horizon spill.
The allegations about BP's Atlantis platform were first made last year, but they were laid out in fresh detail in the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Houston against Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and the Minerals and Management Service, the agency responsible for regulating offshore drilling in the Gulf.
The whistleblower is Kenneth Abbott, a former project control supervisor contracted by BP who also gave an interview to "60 Minutes" on Sunday night. In a conversation last week with ProPublica, Abbott alleged that BP failed to review thousands of final design documents for systems and equipment on the Atlantis platform -- meaning BP management never confirmed the systems were built as they were intended – and didn't properly file the documentation that functions as an instruction manual for rig workers to shut down operations in the case of a blowout or other emergency.
Abbott alleges that when he warned BP about the dangers presented by the missing documentation the company ignored his concerns and instead emphasized saving money.
"There were hundreds, if not thousands, of drawings that hadn't been approved and to send drawings (to the rig) that hadn't been approved could result in catastrophic operator errors," Abbott told ProPublica. "They turned their eye away from their responsibility to make sure the overall design works. Instead they are having bits and pieces fabricated and they are just hoping that these contractors who make all these separate pieces can pull it together and make it safe. The truth is these contractors see a piece of the puzzle; they don't see the whole thing."
BP did not respond to a request for comment from ProPublica, but has previously addressed Abbott's concerns in a January letter to congressional investigators stating that the allegations are unfounded and that the Atlantis platform had final documentation in place before it began operating.
According to an e-mail sent to Abbott by BP's ombudsman's office, an independent group employed by the company to address internal complaints, BP had not complied with its own rules governing how and where the documentation should be kept but had not necessarily violated any regulations for drilling. The e-mail does not address the specifics raised in the lawsuit.
A spokesperson for the Department of the Interior said the agency would not comment on pending litigation.
Congress and the Minerals and Management Service have been investigating Abbott's concerns since last year, when he and Food and Water Watch, an environmental organization based in Washington, D.C., first filed the complaints. But according to both Abbott and FWW, little has been done. After the Deepwater Horizon Gulf spill underscored their concerns, they decided to jointly file the lawsuit. Abbott was laid off shortly after he raised the concerns to BP management.
According to the lawsuit, by Nov. 28, 2008, when Abbott last had access to BP's files, only half of the 7,176 drawings detailing Atlantis' sub-sea equipment had been approved for design by an engineer and only 274 had been approved "as built," meaning they were checked and confirmed to meet quality and design standards and the documentation made available to the rig crew. Ninety percent of the design documents, the suit alleges, had never been approved at all.
The Atlantis rig is even larger than the Deepwater Horizon rig that sank in April. It began producing oil in 2007 and can produce 8.4 million gallons a day.
The components include some of the critical infrastructure to protect against a spill. According the suit, none of the sub-sea risers – the pipelines and hoses that serve as a conduit for moving materials from the bottom of the ocean to the facility -- had been "issued for design." The suit also alleges that none of the wellhead documents were approved, and that none of the documents for the manifolds that combine multiple pipeline flows into a single line at the seafloor had been reviewed for final use.
Directions for how to use the piping and instrument systems that help shut down operations in the event of an emergency, as well as the computer software used to enact an emergency shutdown, had also not been approved, the lawsuit says. According to the lawsuit, 14 percent those documents had been approved for construction, and none received final approval to ensure they were built and functioning properly.
"BP's worst-case scenario indicates that an oil spill from the BP Atlantis Facility could be many times larger than the current oil spill from the BP Deepwater Horizon," the lawsuit states. "The catastrophic Horizon oil spill would be a mere drop in the bucket when compared to the potential size of a spill from the BP Atlantis facility."
It is not clear from the lawsuit or the limited statements made by BP or federal regulators if BP has corrected the documentation problem since Abbott was laid off.
Abbott told ProPublica he raised the documentation issues repeatedly in e-mails and conversations with management, "saying this was critical to operator safety and rig safety."
"They just ignored my requests for help," he said. "There seemed to be a big emphasis to push the contractors to get things done. And that was always at the forefront of the operation."