The recent devastating oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico could have been avoided if one former Federal EPA agent had been allowed to do his job. Scott West, who now works for the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, retired early from the EPA after the Federal government pulled the plug on his investigation into negligence by British Petroleum (BP) in Alaska in 2006. West was well on the road to sending some BP executives to jail when his investigation was quashed before it was complete, and BP paid a $20 million dollar fine and pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor offense. If West had been allowed to complete his investigation, some BP executives would have been more motivated to have taken more precautions to ensure that incidents like that which happened on Earth Day in the Gulf would not have happened.
Justice interrupted has now borne the consequences of the Federal government’s compromise with those now responsible for the most devastating oil spill in history.
The following article is by former EPA agent Scott West. West is now director of investigations for Sea Shepherd.
Scott was quoted in an article in Newsweek last week about this incident: http://www.newsweek.com/id/237651
Commentary by Scott West
At least that is the way it seems to be. I watched as two very good criminal investigations were shut down by Bush’s (2) Department of Justice (DOJ) and had to also watch incredulously as my agency, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), fell into lockstep with DOJ. The two cases were the Texas City Refinery explosion criminal investigation and the March 2006 transit pipeline rupture on the North Slope of Alaska criminal investigation. In the first, a number of workers were killed or injured, and in the second, the largest oil spill(in Alaska) since the Exxon Valdez occurred.
I think we can safely assume that BP (corporations do not make decisions; the people that run them do) did not want to blow up one of its refineries, kill and injure its employees, or to dump valuable crude onto the tundra and into a frozen lake. So what made these “accidents” become the focus of criminal investigations? It was a corporate culture that rewarded cost savings at every level, and that dealt harshly with anyone who brought bad news to management. Generally, the cost savings occurred at the expense of worker safety and environmental protection, and workers learned to limit voicing their concerns about these matters because being outspoken usually resulted in losing one’s livelihood. So, we have the situation in these two cases where corners were cut and workers’ voiced concerns were ignored. The company had the internal information to know that explosions could occur and pipes could rupture, yet did not take the prudent steps of reasonable persons to address those problems. That is negligence, and it is criminal.
As a criminal investigator, I want to make sure that we get to the highest people in the organization that made the negligent decisions, or were aware they were being made. We also want to hold these higher-level folks accountable so corporations will take notice and do the right thing, both within the organization under investigation and others in the business. Deterrence is critical especially for a very small boutique criminal investigative force such as the one deployed by the EPA. These investigators cannot address all of the environmental criminals, so deterrence is desired to reduce the number of criminals and criminal acts. Paltry corporate fines and corporate criminal pleas do not hold individuals accountable and do nothing to promote deterrence, even within the offending corporation. BP was an environmental criminal recidivist when these two criminal acts occurred.
Nor do corporations learn constructive civil lessons from their misdeeds if/when they are under scrutiny, as the government steps in at high (perhaps even the highest) levels and pulls the rug out from underneath the dedicated hard working investigators and prosecutors. I watched this happen in the oil spill case and did everything I could to prevent this malfeasance. My counterpart in the refinery investigation also tried to do the right thing. Our management within the EPA Criminal Investigation Division, instead of supporting its senior field supervisors, smacked us both down. I have witnessed similar situations from both Democratic and Republican administrations, but I have to admit that what I personally witnessed with the DOJ (and EPA) in the oil spill case was absolutely blatant and disgusting. I retired as soon as I could and took a bath to wash off the stink. I also went public with my accusations. There was an initial flurry of interest by Congress and the media, but with the change in the administration, the interest was short lived.
Now, we have this catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico. What else could this be in terms of death, injuries, and environmental destruction? When I first heard about the rig explosion I said to my wife that it is probably a BP rig, and sure enough I was correct. I am willing to bet too that when the investigations are over into the cause it will have something to do with cutting corners. There will also likely be employees coming forward whose voiced concerns were ignored.
I do not believe any lessons were learned at BP because of the fact that our government did nothing more than slap BP on its wrist in the previous cases. BP did not fail the citizens of the US and the world’s environment. BP was simply doing what corporations do. It was our government that failed us. Let us hope that there will be a robust and unfettered criminal investigation into the cause of this “accident” and that the prosecutors will be allowed to finally bring appropriate charges. Perhaps then, there will not be a next time.
Department of Intelligence and Investigations
Sea Shepherd Conservation Society
Special Agent-in-Charge (retired)
Criminal Investigation Division
For further reading on this topic: