(Illustration: Lance Page / t r u t h o u t)
West was the special agent in charge with the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) criminal division who had been probing alleged crimes committed by BP and the company's senior officials in connection with a March 2006 pipeline rupture at the company's Prudhoe Bay operations in Alaska's North Slope that spilled 267,000 gallons of crude oil across two acres of frozen tundra - the second largest spill in Alaska's history - which went undetected for nearly a week.
West was confident that the thousands of hours he invested into the criminal probe would result in felony charges against the company and the senior executives who received advanced warnings from dozens of employees at the Prudhoe Bay facility that unless immediate steps were taken to repair the severely corroded pipeline, a disaster on par with that of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill was only a matter of time.
In fact, West, who spent more than two decades at the EPA's criminal division, was also told the pipeline was going to rupture - about six months before it happened.
In a wide-ranging interview with Truthout, West described how the Justice Department (DOJ) abruptly shut down his investigation into BP in August 2007 and gave the company a "slap on the wrist" for what he says were serious environmental crimes that should have sent some BP executives to jail.
He first aired his frustrations after he retired from the agency in 2008. But he said his story is ripe for retelling because the same questions about BP's record are being raised again after a catastrophic explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig killed 11 workers and ruptured an oil well 5,000 feet below the surface that has been spewing upwards of 200,000 barrels of oil per day into the Gulf waters for a month.
In the summer of 2005, West was transferred from San Francisco to the EPA's Seattle office and was introduced to Chuck Hamel, an oil industry watchdog, who is credited with exposing weak pollution laws at the Valdez tanker port in the 1980s prior to the Exxon Valdez spill and the electrical and maintenance problems associated with the trans-Alaska oil pipeline operated by BP.
Hamel had become the defacto spokesperson and protector of dozens of BP Exploration Alaska (BPXA) whistleblowers, who would routinely leak to him documents, pictures and inside information about the company's poor safety and maintenance record at its Prudhoe Bay operations. Hamel also operated a now defunct web site, Anwrnews.com (the acronym for Arctic National Wildlife Refuge), which became a clearing house for the whistleblowers' complaints and an archive showcasing, among other things, the letters Hamel had written to Congress, the White House and BP's top executives exposing the company's shoddy operations in the North Slope and demanding immediate action. The tagline on the archived version of Anwrnews.com says it was "established by and for the many concerned Prudhoe Bay BP operators who fear for their lives and the environment due to violations of Government regulations and requirements by BP."
One of the letters still posted on the web site is dated January 10, 2001. It was sent to him by unnamed BP employees, who asked him to assist them in getting BP management to address their concerns about safety and maintenance issues that their repeated attempts had failed to do. They said they even reached out to then-BP President Lord John Browne about "inadequate staffing levels" two years earlier, but never received a response.
"We were concerned about our recommendations being ignored and disregarded...We were concerned about BP's cost cutting efforts undermining our ability to respond to emergencies and reducing the reliability of critical safety systems. We were concerned about the lack of preventative maintenance on our equipment," the BP employees' letter said. "We had suffered a major fire, which burned a well pad module to the ground and nearly cost one of our operators his life.
"We had suffered two job fatalities and a third serious injury to personnel in the months before the letter was sent. In response to our concerns, Sir John's Management Team further reduced our staffing levels from six to four in the GC Plants and from seven to six on the Well Pads. Our four Plant Operators do the work that seven did in 1990.
"It is clear that BP Management has one priority and that is cost reduction ... Perhaps you may know some way of getting our concerns heard and addressed. If these concerns are not addressed, we feel that a major catastrophe is imminent. We have only our lives and our futures at risk here."
Hamel followed up the employees' letter with one he sent on April 11, 2001, to Browne at the company's London headquarters alerting him to the substandard safety and maintenance policies in place at Prudhoe Bay that threatened the welfare of BP employees, an issue that persists at the facility nearly a decade later.
"Courageous 'Concerned Individuals' contacted me for assistance in reaching you," Hamel's letter to Browne said. "They have not succeeded in being heard in the past two years in London, Juneau or Washington. I am again a reluctant conduit. They hope that you will take whatever action appropriate to effect corrective action which would protect the environment, the facilities and their safety."