By Gregory Palast for The Observer/Guardian UK
British Petroleum failed to act on warnings of an environmental catastrophe in the run-up to the Exxon Valdez disaster, whose effects are still being felt a decade later, an investigation by The Observer has established.
Four years before the tanker ran aground in Alaska’s Prince William Sound 10 years ago this week, officials at the company’s London office were warned that the BP-controlled Alyeska Pipeline Services – responsible for containing oil spills at the terminal where the disaster occurred – would be unable to cope in an emergency. They were also told employees at the Alyeska operation admitted falsifying reports to the US government to conceal previous smaller spills.
BP was told by a Washington-based oil broker, Charles Hamel, that evidence of pollution was being covered up at the Alyeska terminal. He flew to London to speak to BP officials in September 1984. BP led the consortium that ran and still runs the terminal.
He handed over detailed accounts from laboratory technicians saying they had been required to empty test tubes of oil-polluted water and refill them with clean sea water.
After Hamel alerted BP about Alyeska, his phone was tapped, his home bugged and his post intercepted. Alyeska employees who sent him information were fired. The surveillance had been ordered by James Hermiller, who had been seconded from BP to become president of the Alyeska operation. After his actions were disclosed, he took early retirement.
A US federal judge ruled the wiretaps to be illegal. BP paid Hamel and others a settlement reported to total several million dollars.
The Observer has also obtained copies of documents showing that in May 1984, BP’s own outgoing terminal supervisor had warned them that Alyeska’s failures left Alaska exposed to an oil spill disaster. Captain James Woodle handed a letter to George Nelson, appointed president of Alyeska by BP, in which he highlighted dangers including the removal of personnel and equipment in Prince William Sound in case of a spill.
BP this weekend said it was unable to comment on specific events and correspondence of 15 years ago.
On the night of the Exxon Valdez disaster, the Alyeska consortium had neither the response teams nor the equipment to contain the spill quickly.
Recent studies show salmon and herring with half-formed tails, twisted spines and grossly distended stomachs still being caught in Prince William Sound.
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Gregory Palast’s column “Inside Corporate America” appears fortnightly in the
Observer’s Business section. Nominated Business Writer of the Year (UK Press
Association – 2000), Investigative Story of the Year (Industrial. Society – 1999), Financial Times David Thomas Prize (1998).