NBC News

Nightly News   |  May 17, 2010

Whistleblower: BP aware of safety problems

More than a year before the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf, a veteran oil industry manager began sounding the alarm about BP's safety practices on BP's offshore platform Atlantis. NBC's Lisa Myers reports.

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BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: Almost a month now after that blowout that started all of this, a top official has lost his job. He is Chris Oynes , responsible for overseeing offshore oil and gas drilling as head of the Interior Department 's Minerals Management Service . He will step down at the end of this month. The agency is coming under intense scrutiny now, along with BP , the oil company that operated the rig. Our senior investigative correspondent Lisa Myers spoke with someone who tried to raise a red flag on all this a long time ago.

LISA MYERS reporting: This veteran oil energy manager, Ken Abbott , began sounding the alarm about BP 's safety practices more than a year ago while working on another BP offshore platform , Atlantis .

Mr. KEN ABBOTT: What I realized about BP is that they were not following normal accepted safe engineering practice.

MYERS: Abbott became concerned because, he says, thousands of engineering drawing detailing how the complex structure was built had not been reviewed by BP engineers, and may not have been up to date.

Mr. ABBOTT: I thought it could result in a -- in a cataclysmic failure very easily because of the inability of the operators to have the drawings they need to correctly control that platform.

MYERS: Or to handle an emergency. Congressional hearings revealed that there also were problems with drawings on BP 's Deepwater Horizon . As workers there scrambled to save the rig, they wasted critical time because they didn't have

accurate drawings of important equipment: the blowout preventer. Representative BART STUPAK (Democrat, Energy Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Chairman): The drawings they received did not match the structure on the sea floor.

MYERS: Still a BP spokesman today called Abbott 's allegations "groundless" and said the Atlantis crew has access to the information they need for the safe operation of the facility. Abbott was laid off by BP and is now working with an environmental group . He says he also repeatedly took his concerns to the federal agency which regulates offshore drilling , the Interior Department 's Minerals Management Service .

Mr. ABBOTT: Basically the MMS ignored us and then they made excuses.

MYERS: MMS has a checkered history. Fifteen reports by government watchdogs over seven years criticize the agency for being too cozy with industry, corrupt or inept. Environmentalists charge that under both Bush and Obama administrations, the MMS has often behaved as though its mission is to help oil companies evade environmental laws.

Mr. BILL SNAPE (Center for Biological Diversity): They've continued to have a very cozy relationship with the oil industry , continued to issue permits, continued to rubber stamp whatever the industry wanted.

MYERS: In fact, since January 2009 , MMS has repeatedly given permission to BP and other companies to drill in the Gulf of Mexico without getting required permits assessing the threat to endangered species and marine mammals. And critics say this practice has not changed even in the wake of the accident.

Mr. SNAPE: After the blowup, the Department of Interior continued to issue exploratory drilling permits, which is outrageous.

MYERS: MMS declined to comment on any of this and today refused to send a witness to testify before a Senate committee . Last week the Obama administration moved to reform the agency. Abbott today sued the Interior Department to halt operations