Feds reject allegations of unsafe practices at BP’s Atlantis platform

Federal investigators today cleared BP to continue producing oil from the Atlantis platform it operates in the Gulf of Mexico, after rejecting allegations of unsafe practices at the facility that surfaced after the Deepwater Horizon disaster last year.

After an 11-month long probe, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement concluded that a former BP contractor had it wrong when he claimed that workers on the platform lacked access to critical, engineer-approved drawings of the facility.

The allegations by contractor Ken Abbott, are unfounded, according to BOEMRE’s final report on the probe, which was released today:

Based upon our investigation, prior inspections, and review of documents submitted by BP during the permitting process, we concluded that there is no evidence to suggest that documents and drawings submitted by BP fail to accurately reflect the production safety systems installed on the Atlantis facility.

Although federal regulators cleared BP of the core allegations, the ocean energy bureau still found problems with the way the oil company maintained engineering schematics, and it cited the firm for not giving the government required drawings depicting changes to components at the site.

The ocean energy bureau issued an “incident of non-compliance” citing BP for the violation, but is not seeking any civil penalties in connection with the citation, after concluding that the issue was swiftly corrected and did not pose an immediate safety risk.

Abbott said in a statement that he was “disappointed but not really surprised.” He took a jab at the ocean energy bureau, previously known as the Minerals Management Service, which he said aims first “to protect themselves and then the oil companies.”

“They may have changed their name, but not their way of operating,” Abbott said. “I’m certainly not giving up. I entered this fight to help prevent another catastrophe in the Gulf and that’s still my mission.”

The advocacy group Food and Water Watch also blasted BOEMRE’s findings as “seriously flawed,” with Executive Director Wenonah Hauter saying the report was biased and showed the agency was “protecting the interests of its industry cronies, rather than the public.”

“The federal government dragged its feet on this investigation, and its findings are appalling — like a doctor’s note for a truant student,” Hauter said. “They are a weak attempt to cover BP’s foul play. After all this time, the public deserves better.”

The report rapped BP’s record-keeping:

Our investigation found that the electronic document database that BP used to store documents developed during the design, construction, and installation of the Atlantis production facility was disorganized and inadequate to handle the large volume of documents generated by BP and its third-party contractors. In addition, BP used a confusing labeling system for engineering drawings contained in the project files. Those drawings also had other defects and deficiencies, including undated and missing stamps and signatures, and inconsistent titles for types of drawings.

Michael Bromwich, the director of the ocean energy bureau, said the report by the agency’s investigations and review unit “reflects a careful and comprehensive investigation of the allegations by an interdisciplinary team of lawyers, structural engineers, and other BOEMRE personnel.”

“As the report makes clear, although we found significant problems with the way BP labeled and maintained its engineering drawings and related documents, we found the most serious allegations to be without merit, including the suggestion that a lack of adequate documentation created a serious safety risk on the Atlantic facility,” Bromwich said. “We found no credible evidence to support that claim.”

Lawmakers seized on the allegations about the Atlantis platform last year and insisted that government regulators should shut down the facility while it was investigated. Operating about 124 miles offshore in 7,000 feet of water, the Atlantis pumps crude from territory far deeper than the destroyed Deepwater Horizon rig, which was drilling an exploratory well about 5,000 feet below the surface. Atlantis can pump as much as 200,000 barrels of oil daily.

Members of Congress worried that because of the volume, a blowout at the platform could make the Macondo gusher look like a trickle.

The investigation was launched at the request of lawmakers and after Abbott, the former safety consultant, filed a lawsuit in April 2009 under the federal False Claims Act alleging that BP did not have drawings that show how subsea parts of the platform were built. Those “as-built” design documents may be quite different from engineering documents that illustrate the original construction plan for the platform.

BP insisted that the claims about incomplete engineering documents were without substance and — just as the ocean energy bureau investigators concluded — the company stressed that up-to-date drawings were readily available to platform workers.

A BP spokesman said the company had not yet reviewed the BOEMRE investigation report. “Throughout this process, BP contributed its full cooperation with the agency investigation, maintaining our belief that Atlantis is, and at all times has been, safe and fit for service,” the BP spokesman said.