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The Next Deepwater?

While Congress investigates the April 20 explosion that killed 11 people and spiked an underwater oil leak that continues to spill more than 210,000 gallons a day, another BP rig is at the center of its own firestorm.

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Before Deepwater Horizon, the British Petroleum oil rig that’s now 5,000 feet under the Gulf of Mexico, there was the Atlantis project.

When it began production in 2007 at a site about 200 miles south of New Orleans, that BP holding was the world’s deepest oil and natural gas well. In 2009, Deepwater Horizon, a BP-leased platform located just 100 miles away from Atlantis, claimed that title for itself.  

Now, while Congress investigates the April 20 Deepwater explosion that killed 11 people and spiked an underwater leak that continues to spill more than 210,000 gallons of crude oil a day, the Atlantis project is at the center of its own firestorm — one that’s been smoldering since long before Deepwater gained notoriety.

On Monday, a Washington, D.C.-based conservation group filed suit in a Houston federal court, alleging that Atlantis lacks critical safety documents required under federal law. The Mineral Management Service, the Department of Interior division charged with overseeing offshore mineral leases, is the target of the suit, which asks for an injunction against BP’s operation of Atlantis.

“We have learned that, with respect to the Atlantis rig, the same safety deficiencies exist [as Deepwater],” says Mikal Watts, the San Antonio-based lawyer representing Food and Water Watch. “There's a complete and wholesale lack of documentation that is required under federal law in order to operate an offshore rig on United States oil and gas properties.”

Watts believes Deepwater and Atlantis are “very similar,” noting that they were both manufactured in the same shipyard and share the same “incredible capacity to draw oil out of the ground.”

“I can tell you, knowing as much as I do about this, that one of them has a complete absence of care shown that's caused a leak,” he says. “And the other one is in just as bad of shape that certainly will cause a leak if we can't stop this from happening."

“Catastrophic Operator errors”

To lease federal offshore lands, companies must comply with regulations promulgated by MMS that require up-to-date records, including “as-built” drawings that show the current layout of the platform and “piping and instrument diagrams” (referred to as P&IDs) that serve as operating manuals for safety and production equipment. Platform operators rely on the documents to show them what equipment located deep under the sea looks like — and they can be crucial in times of emergency.

The FWW lawsuit focuses on about 14 months of back-and-forth between BP, Congress and MMS, calling into question the adequacy of the Atlantis’ project's safety documentation. A BP spokesman denies there is any incomplete documentation, saying a BP internal investigation revealed that “we do have up-to-date drawings of everything that our guys need to operate the platform safely.”

That contradicts an Aug. 15, 2008, internal BP e-mail from a member of the Atlantis production team that was obtained by FWW that says “there are hundreds if not thousands of Subsea documents that have never been finalized” and cautions this could lead to “catastrophic Operator errors.”

According to a chronology provided by FWW, an Atlantis contractor who oversaw engineering documentation, Ken Abbott, brought the lack of records to the attention of MMS in March 2009 after first contacting BP’s ombudsman, who assured Abbott that the company would conduct an investigation. (BP has since laid off Abbott. In a March 2009 e-mail, he interpreted the company’s move as retaliation for drawing attention to the safety breach.)

In May 2009, Abbott contacted Mike Sawyer, an independent engineer who through his own study concluded that only 14 percent of Atlantis’ P&IDs had been approved by engineers for design or construction, and that only one had been engineer-approved “as built.” Sawyer concluded that “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 … environment and harm to workers.”

Zach Corrigan, a senior staff attorney at FWW, explains: "If you don't have as-builts, P&IDs, you are basically operating from memory or what you think the platform should look like, not what it actually looks like. And this becomes absolutely critical when you're talking about what Atlantis doesn't have, which is the below the sea components."

Atlantis attracted congressional scrutiny as early as February of this year, when U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., wrote a letter signed by 18 other lawmakers calling for an MMS investigation into its safety documentation. Shortly after Grijalva’s letter, MMS said it would review Atlantis’ compliance with documentation requirements and issue a report by the end of May. On April 30, FWW said, MMS informed it in response to a Freedom of Information request that it would not take any further steps to investigate the Atlantis rig.

Watts said the lawsuit was spurred by continued inaction from MMS, even after attention from Congress and the Deepwater Horizon explosion. "We have a situation where the industry is left to police itself,” Watts says. “With respect to BP, there is a huge history of corporate malfeasance and safety problems, and we've got a situation where the wolf is being asked to guard the henhouse, and that's not a good idea from the standpoint of safety.”

Just last week, in the wake of congressional testimony highlighting problems with institutional deference to oil companies within the MMS, Interior  Secretary Ken Salazar announced plans to split the division into two sections, one that concentrated on collecting royalties from oil and gas companies, and another focused on enforcement of safety codes.

News of the lawsuit also came as Chris Oynes, the MMS’s associate director and chief of its leasing department, abruptly announced his retirement. A spokesman for MMS, who would not comment on the lawsuit, said he did not know when more information about Oynes’ announcement would be made public.

“I don't think the people of the Southeast United States have any idea how devastating this oil leak is going to be to their way of life,” Watts says, adding that he hopes the lawsuit hits BP “in the pocketbook hard enough to get all their systems in compliance”

”I think that this is a repeat oil slick waiting to happen if BP is not forced to shut down this rig and get all their safety processes in place,” he says.

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