The whistleblower, whose name has been withheld at the person's request because the whistleblower still works in the oil industry and fears retaliation, first raised concerns about safety issues related to BP Atlantis, the world's largest and deepest semi-submersible oil and natural gas platform, located about 200 miles south of New Orleans, in November 2008. Atlantis, which began production in October 2007, has the capacity to produce about 8.4 million gallons of oil and 180 million cubic feet of natural gas per day.
It was then that the whistleblower, who was hired to oversee the company's databases that housed documents related to its Atlantis project, discovered that the drilling platform had been operating without a majority of the engineer-approved documents it needed to run safely, leaving the platform vulnerable to a catastrophic disaster that would far surpass the massive oil spill that began last week following a deadly explosion on a BP-operated drilling rig.
BP's own internal communications show that company officials were made aware of the issue and feared that the document shortfalls related to Atlantis "could lead to catastrophic operator error" and must be addressed.
Indeed, according to an August 15, 2008, email sent to BP officials by Barry Duff, a member of BP's Deepwater Gulf of Mexico Atlantis Subsea Team, the Piping and Instrument Diagrams (P&IDs) for the Atlantis subsea components "are not complete." P&IDs documents form the foundation of a hazards analysis BP is required to undertake as part of its Safety and Environmental Management Program related to its offshore drilling operations. P&IDs drawings provide the schematic details of the project's piping and process flows, valves and safety critical instrumentation.
"The risk in turning over drawings that are not complete are: 1) The Operator will assume the drawings are accurate and up to date," the email said. "This could lead to catastrophic Operator errors due to their assuming the drawing is correct," said Duff's email to BP officials Bill Naseman and William Broman. "Turning over incomplete drawings to the Operator for their use is a fundamental violation of basic Document control, [internal standards] and Process Safety Regulations."
BP did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story. Despite the claims that BP did not maintain proper documentation related to Atlantis, federal regulators continued to authorize an expansion of the drilling project.
Last May, Mike Sawyer, an engineer with Apex Safety Consultants, was asked by the whistleblower's attorney to evaluate BP's document database the whistleblower worked on that dealt with the subsea components. The whistleblower made a copy of the database and took it with him upon his termination from the company.
Sawyer looked into the whistleblower's allegations regarding BP's document shortfall related to Atlantis and concluded that of the 2,108 P&IDs BP maintained that dealt specifically with the subsea components of its Atlantis production project, 85 percent did not receive engineer approval. Even worse, 95 percent of Atlantis' subsea welding records did not receive final approval, calling into question the integrity of thousands of crucial welds on subsea components that, if they were to rupture, could result in an oil spill 30 times worse than the one that occurred after the explosion on Deepwater Horizon last week.
In a report Sawyer prepared after his review, he said BP's "widespread pattern of unapproved design, testing and inspection documentation on the Atlantis subsea project creates a risk of a catastrophic incident threatening the [Gulf of Mexico] deep-water environment and the safety of platform workers." Moreover, "the extent of documentation discrepancies creates a substantial risk that a catastrophic event could occur at any time."
"The absence of a complete set of final, up-to-date, 'as built' engineering documents, including appropriate engineering approval, introduces substantial risk of large scale damage to the deep water [Gulf of Mexico] environment and harm to workers, primarily because analyses and inspections based on unverified design documents cannot accurately assess risk or suitability for service," Sawyer's report said. He added, "there is no valid engineering justification for these violations and short cuts."
Sawyer explained that the documents in question - welding records, inspections and safety shutdown logic materials - are "extremely critical to the safe operation of the platform and its subsea components." He said the safety shutdown logic drawings on Atlantis, a complex computerized system that, during emergencies, is supposed to send a signal to automatically shut down the flow of oil, were listed as "requiring update."
"BP's recklessness in regards to the Atlantis project is a clear example of how the company has a pattern of failing to comply with minimum industry standards for worker and environmental safety," Sawyer said.
The oil spill blanketing roughly 4,000 square miles in the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon explosion, which killed eleven workers, was exacerbated, preliminary reports suggest, by the failure of a blowout preventer to shut off the flow of oil on the drilling rig and the lack of a backup safety measure, known as a remote control acoustic shut off switch, to operate the blowout preventer.
Congressman Henry Waxman, chairman of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, sent a letter Thursday to BP Chairman and President Lamar McKay seeking documents related to inspections on Deepwater Horizon conducted this year and BP's policy on using acoustic shut off switches in the Gulf of Mexico.
The circumstances behind the spill are now the subject of a federal investigation.