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Former EPA Officials: Why Hasn’t The Justice Department Indicted BP’s Top Executives?

Illustration: Lance Page / t r u t h o u t

Is a record $4.5 billion fine, guilty pleas to 14 charges and the indictment of three employees enough of a deterrent to stop “serial environmental criminal” BP from placing profits before safety?

If history is any guide, Scott West believes the answer is a resounding, “No.”

West is a former veteran special agent-in-charge at the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Criminal Investigation Division. In 2006, he led an investigation into BP and the oil behemoth’s senior officials for alleged crimes associated with an oil spill that year at BP’s Prudhoe Bay operations on Alaska’s North Slope, which spilled more than 200,000 gallons of oil across two acres of frozen tundra – the second largest spill in Alaska’s history.

But just as West began collecting evidence against the company’s top executives, his investigation was abruptly shut down. On October 25, 2007, BP and the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced a settlement to resolve all of BP’s pending major criminal cases. The company agreed to pay a $20 million fine and plead guilty to a criminal violation of the Clean Water Act related to the Alaska oil spill. BP also pled guilty to a felony and a paid a $50 million fine over a deadly explosion at the company’s Texas City refinery in 2005, which claimed the lives of 15 employees and injured and maimed 170 others. BP also entered into a deferred prosecution agreement with the DOJ, paid a $373 million fine, and admitted that it had manipulated the propane market in 2004.

West, who was profiled in an investigative report published in Truthout a month after the explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf that killed 11 rig workers, said he felt if he were allowed to continue his investigation it “would have revealed enough evidence to convict the company and very senior officials on felony charges.”

But, “the Bush DOJ shut it down before it had reached any logical conclusion,” West told Truthout. “My investigation should have lasted another two years or so.”

So when West, who retired in late 2008 and blew the whistle on what took place behind-the-scenes related to his probe of BP, heard that the company had reached its latest settlement with the government in mid-November to resolve all of the federal criminal charges (pending court approval) over its role in the worst man-made environmental disaster in US history, he couldn’t help but feel a sense of déjà vu.

“I’m not convinced the fine, as large as it is, will get BP to change its behavior,” West said in an interview with Truthout. “BP can easily pay it. It may not be enough to get BP to change its corporate culture until senior people are actually held personally accountable for decisions that led to the Texas City refinery explosion, the spills in Alaska and Deepwater Horizon.”

Brent Coon agrees.

Coon is a Beaumont, Texas, attorney who sued BP on behalf of the victims and the families of those killed in the Texas City refinery blast. His law firm’s website boasts that his practice has “built the most comprehensive understanding of BP’s corporate culture of any law firm in the United States.”

“The reality is that BP has a corporate culture that puts profits before safety and that cant and won’t be scrubbed off,” Coon said in an interview with Truthout. “BP is prone to this for a litany of reasons that dates back to their roots. Their employees are groomed under this mentality. I personally know all of the decision making goes all the way to the top of the company. The only way to change the culture is to get rid of everybody at every level of leadership…”

Read the rest of this report by Jason Leopold at Truthout.