Wednesday, June 9, 2010

When Was It Time to Throw the Book at BP?

      Terrance Graham was a two-time juvenile offender, barely past his 19th birthday in 2006, when Judge Lance Day in Jacksonville, Fla., decided to send him to prison for the rest of his life “to protect the community.” Imagine what harms might have been prevented if the repeat corporate offender BP had come up before a likeminded judge sometime in the past.

* * *

      The cause of the April 20 blowout of BP’s Deepwater Horizon well in the Gulf of Mexico remains to be determined. So, too, the full extent of the economic, environmental, legal, and social costs of what is already the worst oil spill in U.S. history, a spill unlikely to be contained for at least two months, if then.
      Seven weeks later, however, this much is known: BP has a long history of safety and environmental violations that can be blamed for the deaths of 15 refinery workers in Texas, the spoilage of Alaska’s North Shore, and lesser injuries to workers and environments at other sites.
      The company has twice pleaded guilty to federal criminal charges. It was put on probation after the Texas refinery explosion in March 2005. Four years later, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) hit the company with a record $87 million fine for failing to correct the problems.
      In all, BP has paid or has pending over $730 million in fines, penalties, or settlements to federal, state, or local governments in recent years for environmental, worker safety, or price manipulation violations, according to a report by the consumer protection group Public Citizen.
      BP’s record of lawbreaking was no secret, but it was not well known. The March 2005 explosion at BP’s 1,200-acre oil refinery in Texas City, just outside Houston, killed 15 workers and injured some 170 others. But the accident was not front-page news outside Texas. Nor were the later investigations that found “significant process issues” at all five of BP’s refineries in the United States.
      In like vein, the 200,000-gallon oil spill from a BP pipeline on Alaska’s North Slope in March 2006 made front-page news in Alaska, but not the rest of the country. The spill, the largest ever on the North Slope, was linked to corrosion in the pipeline. BP had known about the problem at least since 2004, according to later investigations.
      In October 2007, the company pleaded guilty to federal crimes for both incidents: a felony violation of the Clean Air Act for the refinery accident, with a $50 million fine; a misdemeanor violation of the Clean Water Act for the oil spill, with $4 million in restitution to the state of Alaska and a $4 million payment to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. On the same day, the company agreed to pay $303 million to settle civil charges that it unlawfully manipulated prices in the market for propane. The guilty pleas were seen as an effort at good corporate citizenship by BP’s then-new CEO: Tony Hayward.

* * *

      After his first arrest — for a botched restaurant robbery — Terrance Graham negotiated a favorable plea agreement and vowed to do better. “I’ve decided to turn my life around,” Graham promised. After the second offense — a home-invasion robbery — an exasperated Judge Day scolded Graham for blowing his second chance. “If I can’t do anything to get you back on the right path,” the judge said, “then I have to start focusing on the community and trying to protect the community from your actions.”

* * *

      Four and a half years after the Texas City refinery explosion, OSHA concluded last October that BP had failed to make the safety improvements at the facility as promised. The agency proposed fines totaling $87 million. BP said it would contest the penalties. In March, the agency proposed a separate $3 million fine for safety violations at BP’s refinery in Oregon, Ohio, near Toledo.
      An analysis of OSHA’s data base by the Center for Public Integrity, the Washington-based journalistic watchdog group, found BP far and away the worst safety offender among U.S. refineries. BP was responsible for 829 “willful” violations from the period June 2007-February 2010, the center said; the total for all other refineries: 22.
      Now, internal documents obtained by Pro Publica, the nonprofit investigative journalism group, purportedly detail the company’s disregard of safety and environmental problems in the past. The documents — leaked by someone “close to the company” but critical of its performance — depict a corporate environment in which employees were pressured to cut corners and to keep any safety concerns to themselves.

* * *

      Terrance Graham will get a new sentence after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on May 17 that life without parole is cruel and unusual punishment for a juvenile offender. But Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum is promising that Graham will still serve “a very long term in prison.” Meanwhile, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder says the Justice Department has opened a criminal investigation of BP in the wake of the Gulf spill. “We will prosecute to the fullest extent of the law anyone who has violated the law,” Holder said.

1 comment: