Courts & Crime

BP employee's critical email over plant maintenance debated at oil spill trial

Two months after one of the biggest oil spills ever on the North Slope, a BP operator sent an email to managers with a long list of mechanical, management and staffing issues at the production center for the Lisburne oil field, home to the pipeline that ruptured.

BP's former compliance officer testified Thursday in U.S. District Court about his inquiry into those concerns -- and his conclusion in April 2010 that "BP management lacks the capability to maintain the integrity of the North Slope production facilities."

The circumstances surrounding the pipeline that froze and then blew open under pressure in November 2009 are the focus of an ongoing federal court proceeding in Anchorage. At the time of the spill, BP was on probation for a 2007 criminal misdemeanor conviction stemming from an earlier, much bigger spill at Prudhoe Bay.

Federal prosecutors argue that BP's failure to prevent the 2009 spill of 13,500 gallons of crude amounts to another instance of criminal behavior and is grounds for revoking the corporation's probation. If U.S. District Judge Ralph Beistline agrees, he could resentence BP on the original case and order new fines and an additional term of probation.

But BP argues that it couldn't have predicted the spill and that it responded quickly, cleaned up the mess, and is addressing maintenance and staffing issues on the North Slope, where the oil field infrastructure is aging and production is declining.

Philip Dziubinski, who started in operations, served four years as compliance and ethics leader for BP in Alaska and worked for the company or affiliates about 27 years in all. He managed employee concerns about the safety and integrity of operations as well as ethical breaches.

He was making $181,000 a year when he learned in March 2010 that he was being laid off. The notice came just days after he told his bosses on the executive team about the operator's concerns at Lisburne. BP says he was let go as part of a national restructuring eliminating a number of middle managers.

A BP paralegal escorting government inspectors through the Lisburne Production Center spotted a cut-and-paste version of the email in the copy room, and wanted to make sure higher-ups were aware, according to BP attorney Jeff Feldman. The employee gave it to Brad McKim, BP's managing attorney, who gave it to Dziubinski on March 2, 2010, and asked him to check out the concerns with field managers, Dziubinski said, under questioning by assistant U.S. Attorney Aunnie Steward.

Field managers already were working on the issues, BP says. The operator who wrote it, Tony Jackson, had emailed it Jan. 31, 2010, to Mikal Hauge, a BP manager for the North Slope whose area includes Lisburne, along with others, according to BP.

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