BP whistleblower program may move in-house

Posted: Friday, October 15, 2010

ANCHORAGE - BP PLC is considering whether to renew a contract with an ombudsman's office launched to handle whistleblower complaints.

The ombudsman's office was created four years ago after major oil spills at Alaska's Prudhoe Bay field, which is operated by BP. The aim was to give U.S. employees of the London-based oil company a new way to report problems.

The ombudsman, retired federal judge Stanley Sporkin, provides confidential access to a person outside BP who can launch third-party investigations.

BP said it may bring the program in-house.

But Steve Rinehart, a BP spokesman in Alaska, said the company hasn't made any decisions yet.

BP's contract with the ombudsman's office expires in June and the company could also choose to extend it as it has two previous times.

Rinehart said the ombudsman's office will remain open until "we get to a point in time when we feel (our) internal processes are sufficiently robust."

Glenn Trimmer, a union leader at Prudhoe Bay, said the ombudsman's office is among the best options workers have to report problems they can't resolve by working with management.

"I'd like to see the office stay," said Trimmer, secretary-treasurer for United Steelworkers Local 4959. "I think it's done some good. If it goes away, it's going to be worse, not better."

In a February letter Sporkin wrote to John Minge, the head of BP Exploration (Alaska) Inc., several workers had raised concerns that budget cuts planned for 2010 could result in safety problems. Sporkin wrote that after a "robust discussion" involving the ombudsman's office, the company began a close review of the budget that was "very well received by both employees and managers."

Minge had requested the letter to help him respond to a congressional inquiry about the company's additional spills and mishaps on the North Slope since the major pipeline leaks in 2006.

The largest portion of complaints from Alaska - 35 of 112 - involved workplace retaliation. Sporkin wrote that retaliation is especially a problem with BP contractors. He said in some cases, contractors have resisted providing information to the ombudsman's office.

The ombudsman office's second-biggest caseload after Alaska is in Texas City, Texas, where 15 workers were killed in a BP refinery explosion in 2006. According to Sporkin's letter, the office also has investigated complaints involving two offshore platforms.

Billie Garde, Sporkin's deputy, said the ombudsman's office did not receive any complaints about problems on the Deepwater Horizon rig that exploded in the Gulf of Mexico in April.

"I sincerely wish someone (had called) us," she said.

Chuck Hamel, a veteran oil-industry watchdog, is dissatisfied with Sporkin's work because of the office's handling of one of Hamel's complaints - involving an alleged faulty valve - in 2006.

He doesn't believe closure of the ombudsman's office would make a difference on the North Slope.

Trimmer, however, said workers are afraid of using BP's Open Talk program, an internal system of reporting problems created before the 2006 spills.



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