By JIM ABRAMS Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) 5 Sept 2006 – Just days before being summoned to testify at a congressional hearing, British petroleum giant BP has asked a former federal judge to serve as its ombudsman and hear complaints from BP workers in Alaska and elsewhere about the company’s operations.
Former U.S. District Judge Stanley Sporkin is to give workers an outlet to express concerns about safety and environmental issues. Critics say BP PLC’s American division ignored warnings of problems in its Alaskan oil fields that led to an oil spill in March and the shutdown of its North Slope operations last month.
BP America chairman and president Bob Malone said in a Aug. 31 e-mail message to U.S. employees that Sporkin “is empowered to do whatever is necessary to assemble the facts and identify solutions for problem.” He said Sporkin and a small staff would answer calls from a phone service that will operate 24 hours a day.
On Thursday the House Energy and Commerce Committee will hold hearings on the causes and impact on the U.S. economy of the August shutdown of production of some 400,000 barrels a day of crude oil from Prudhoe Bay.
Malone is expected to get questions on allegations, denied by BP, that it had not responded to warnings from several years back that there was a serious problem with pipe corrosion due to inadequate maintenance.
Committee Chairman Joe Barton, R-Texas, in a statement, said BP had repeatedly assured the committee that the March spill of 270,000 gallons of oil onto the Prudhoe Bay tundra was an anomaly.
The August shutdown “due to excessive corrosion of its oil transit lines contradicts everything the committee has been told,” Barton said.
Charles Hamel, a former oil broker who has been the public voice for charges of improper behavior in Alaska’s oil industry, said he had great respect for Sporkin and said he was glad they (BP) are going to try something new.”
But Hamel, speaking Tuesday at the National Press Club, said he was skeptical of the new open-door policy, claiming that workers in the past who openly complained about problems had been fired or transferred. “Anyone who speaks up pays a price,” he said.
Hamel, 76, said technicians within BP Alaska’s pipeline maintenance division contacted him in 2004 complaining of inadequate attention to pipe corrosion. He said BP officials did not respond to a letter seeking an investigation.
Hamel, in a letter to Barton, urged the committee to focus at the hearing on “the dangerous shortcomings of the vaunted Trans-Alaska Pipeline System and its operating company Alyeska Pipeline.”
As you are aware,” he said in a separate letter on the pipeline to Rep. John Dingell of Michigan, top Democrat on the panel, “a failure of any one of the 500,000 barrel crude tanks, under certain circumstances, would dwarf the damages of the Exxon Valdez spill disaster.”
Alyeska operates the 800-mile-log pipeline on behalf of a consortium of oil companies, including BP, Exxon Mobil Corp. and ConocoPhillips.
Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.