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Wed, Aug 09, 2006 - Page 10 News List

BP safety record comes under scrutiny

CAUSE FOR CONCERN?In the aftermath of the energy giant's closure of an Alaskan oilfield, questions are being asked about the firm's patchy accident record in the US

AFP , WASHINGTON

BP says it has a zero tolerance policy with respect to industrial accidents, but the British energy giant has been accused time and again of cutting safety corners in the US.

BP's US operations were in focus again on Monday after it announced it was shutting down all oil production at the vast Prudhoe Bay oilfield in Alaska, the US' largest field, due to a pipeline leak.

The company is already being investigated by the Justice Department and the Environmental Protection Agency for a huge Alaskan oil spill that occurred in March.

"We've been concerned about BP's safety record on the North Slope of Alaska for many years now," said Justin Tatham, an Arctic advocate for the Public Interest Research Group (PIRG).

"We've seen a pattern emerge over the last four to six years of the company getting more and more sloppy in their work as they try to milk the remaining oil from Prudhoe Bay," Tatham said.

BP America chairman Bob Malone, however, said safety of operations is a top priority for the energy group.

"We will not resume operation of the field until we and government regulators are satisfied that they can be operated safely and pose no threat to the environment," Malone said in a statement.

However, questions about the safety record of the London-headquartered company have long been making headlines in the US.

An enormous explosion at BP's Texas City refinery in March last year killed 15 people.

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration said BP had violated about 300 safety regulations at the plant, the third biggest oil refinery in the US.

In September 2004, two workers at the refinery were burned to death and another was seriously injured.

"This shutdown should not come as a surprise," Greenpeace energy specialist Melanie Duchin said of the latest incident in Alaska.

"Pipe corrosion, which drove BP's decision to shut down this pipeline, was the cause of the March 2006 spill which sent 270,000 gallons of oil onto the tundra of the Prudhoe Bay oil field," she said.

No one was killed as a result of the March oil spill, but the incident sparked a government investigation in a politically sensitive region where people still bitterly remember the ExxonValdez oil disaster of 1989.

It was the worst land spill in the region's history. BP has said it will replace a 5km segment of the ruptured pipeline.

The Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) ordered BP to "take a number of corrective actions" after the March spill, and government engineers are now supervising its shutdown of the Prudhoe Bay field.

As recently as last month, the PHMSA directed BP Exploration Inc "to take additional measures to ensure safety on its Prudhoe Bay pipelines as a result of a pipeline failure in March."

"After the last spill we issued a corrective action order. Our priority is to make sure it's as safe as possible. The tests are working," a PHMSA spokeswoman said on Monday.

PIRG's Tatham said the public interest group is not against oil and gas drilling, but claimed that BP had not made the needed investments to its infrastructure in Alaska to prevent such leaks.

BP said the leak occurred due to corrosion on the pipeline, which dates back to 1977, not long after output at Prodhoe Bay first kicked in.

The trans-Alaska pipeline system from Prudhoe Bay runs about 1,287km south to an oil export terminal at Valdez.

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