Probe sought of Bush handling of Alaska oil-spill case

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 10, 2008 

WASHINGTON — An environmental watchdog group asked the Department of Justice's inspector general on Monday to investigate whether the department had prematurely halted a criminal prosecution of BP for a 2006 oil spill in Alaska.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility filed the complaint on behalf of Scott West, who as the special agent in charge for the Environmental Protection Agency participated in the federal and state investigation of the spill.

West, who retired last week after 19 years as an EPA criminal investigator to take a job with the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, said he'd argued for more time last year because he and his team were looking for evidence to prove felonies. The Justice Department, however, said the evidence had been fully investigated and charged BP with a misdemeanor.

BP, one of the world's largest energy companies, agreed in October 2007 to plead guilty to the federal misdemeanor and pay $20 million in criminal penalties for two Prudhoe Bay spills. One was the largest spill on the North Slope; about 201,000 gallons of oil leaked onto the tundra and a frozen pond.

When the plea was announced last year, federal and state authorities said that the spills had occurred because BP hadn't spent the money necessary to maintain its pipes.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility asked the inspector general to determine whether the investigation was shut down prematurely and whether the fine was too low. It said the $20 million was only a fraction of what the EPA had recommended, according to a copy of a confidential memo from the EPA to the Alaska U.S. Attorney's Office that the employees group released.

Jeff Ruch of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility charged in a statement that the BP oil-spill settlement was part of a pattern of "lowball" public-safety and pollution settlements between corporations and the Justice Department under President Bush. When BP agreed to the settlement, it also agreed to pay $50 million in fines for a refinery explosion in Texas City, Texas, in 2005 that killed 15 people and $303 million in connection with price manipulation of the propane market.

"Occupational fatalities and pollution blowouts cannot be sanctioned so lightly that they are an acceptable cost of doing business," Ruch said. "A full autopsy of this case must be done to determine what killed the tough felony prosecution of a major environmental crime."

West said the government had a large amount of evidence that it hadn't had time to review. He also said he wanted to interview other people.

"We were seeing the potential . . . to develop evidence that would be able to prove felonious behavior on the part of the corporation and a number of its senior officials," West said. "There was a tremendous amount of work to do. This case was in full swing in the summer of 2007. It was nowhere near wrapping up."

"The allegations by Mr. West that the department improperly handled the case are not based in fact and are simply not true," a statement from the Justice Department said. "Mr. West implies that something sinister took place between June 12 and August 28, 2007. As with any investigation, there comes a point in time when further investigation is no longer warranted if it does not have a realistic chance of generating useful evidence."

BP said in a statement that it had cooperated fully in the investigation and it was "not aware of any evidence that anyone at BP violated the law."

At a meeting at the U.S. attorney's office in Anchorage on Aug. 28, 2007, Justice officials asked what investigators could prove if they had to go to trial that day. West said that he and everyone else agreed that they could prove only a misdemeanor. He said he "vehemently" asked for more time but that the department decided to end the investigation.

West released a copy of an internal June 12, 2007, memo from Assistant U.S. Attorney Aunnie Steward to colleagues assessing the case that suggests there was more work to do.

In a statement filed with the complaint, West wrote: "Because this company has strong political connections and because the unprecedented decision to shut down the investigation before it was complete was made by a recent political appointee, I as an experienced criminal investigator and senior manager at the EPA could come to no other judgment than that something 'sinister' did indeed occur in the summer of 2007."

West said the appointee was Ronald Tenpas, assistant attorney general for the Environment and Natural Resources Division at the department. Before his appointment in May 2007, Tenpas worked in the Justice Department as an associate deputy attorney general and as an assistant U.S. attorney.

Andrew Ames, a Justice Department spokesman, denied that Tenpas ordered the case closed. Ames said that career prosecutors in the Justice Department recommended the misdemeanor charge and U.S. Attorney Nelson Cohen had made the decision based on the recommendation. Tenpas concurred with the decision, Ames said.

EPA spokesman Dave Ryan said that after a "robust 18-month criminal investigation, EPA, FBI and DOT (Department of Transportation), along with DOJ prosecutors, jointly concluded the corporation was liable for a negligent discharge of oil" and that no further investigation was likely to "be fruitful."

Cynthia Schnedar, a spokeswoman for the inspector general, said his office was reviewing the request from Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

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