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Fmr. EPA Investigator Scott West: US Has Told BP “It Can Do Whatever It Wants and Won’t Be Held Accountable”

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One month after the BP oil spill, we speak to Scott West, a former top investigator at the Environmental Protection Agency who led an investigation of BP following a major oil pipeline leak in Alaska’s North Slope that spilled 250,000 gallons of oil on the Alaskan tundra. Before West finished his investigation, the Bush Justice Department reached a settlement with BP, and the oil company agreed to pay $20 million. At the same time, BP managed to avoid prosecution for the Texas City refinery explosion that killed fifteen workers by paying a $50 million settlement. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: It was a month ago today when a catastrophic explosion set fire to the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, killing eleven workers and triggering one of the nation’s largest oil spills. A month later, the BP oil spill is still growing and rapidly spreading in the Gulf of Mexico. Heavy black oil can now be seen in the sensitive marshlands of Louisiana. Parts of the oil slick have entered the Gulf loop current, which could carry the oil to the Florida Keys and even possibly up the Atlantic Coast.

At a congressional hearing Wednesday, a professor at Purdue University told lawmakers that the oil spill may be nineteen times larger than BP’s estimate. Steve Wereley estimated the spill is leaking 95,000 barrels of oil, or four million gallons, a day. BP has put the spill at 5,000 barrels a day.

Also on Wednesday, a group of Democratic lawmakers called on the Interior Department to shut down the Atlantis, BP’s second-largest oil and gas rig in the Gulf of Mexico. The Atlantis operates in 7,000 feet of water, 2,000 feet deeper than the Deepwater Horizon.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about BP, we’re joined by a former top investigator at the Environmental Protection Agency. Up until his retirement in 2008, Scott West was a special agent in charge for the Criminal Investigation Division at the EPA.

In 2006, Scott West led an investigation of BP following a major oil pipeline leak in Alaska’s North Slope that spilled 250,000 gallons of oil on the Alaskan tundra. Before West finished his investigation, the Bush Justice Department reached a settlement with BP, and the oil company agreed to pay $20 million. At the same time, BP managed to avoid prosecution for the Texas City refinery explosion that killed fifteen workers by paying a $50 million settlement.

Scott West joins us from Seattle, where he now works for the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.

Thank you very much for joining us, Scott West. Lay out that previous investigation that was shut down by the Bush Justice Department that you did.

SCOTT WEST: Yes, good morning, Amy.

In August of 2005, I was introduced to Chuck Hamel, who spoke to me about employees and workers on the North Slope providing information that the transit lines were full of sludge and were likely to suffer catastrophic failure due to corrosion and that then there would be a tremendous loss of oil onto the slope. Chuck made these employees available to me, and I was able to get this information beforehand. I wanted to get in front of that upcoming spill and prevent the spill from occurring, but I found that the EPA and the federal government really had no controls over the operation of that pipeline. So we were in a wait pattern.

Finally, in March of '06, I got a phone call from the slope from one of these workers that I had spoken with telling me that indeed the anticipated rupture had occurred and that a tremendous amount of oil was out onto the frozen tundra. We were lucky that it was wintertime, because the lake that it got into was frozen solid and it made the cleanup a lot easier. Had it been summertime, there would have been a tremendous sheen of oil flowing into the Beaufort Sea. But anyway, knowing that these workers had information that the pipeline would rupture and had provided that to their management and senior management and nothing had been done, that made that a criminal negligence, at the very least. And so I dispatched criminal investigators from EPA CID and sent them to the North Slope to begin a criminal investigation.

AMY GOODMAN: And what happened?

SCOTT WEST: Well, as we dug into it, we realized that we had a very large issue going on and that information that we were preliminarily receiving indicated that high-level management within BP, not only in the United States, but across the ocean and into London, were aware of the policies on the North Slope to forgo maintenance in exchange for saving money and that there was awareness at very high levels that this particular transit line was in jeopardy. And so, that made the investigation become very complex and generated a lot of interest within the EPA and the Department of Justice of being able to get into very senior levels of the corporation and hold them accountable for their decisions, which led to the corrosion rupturing the pipeline.

As we built up our investigation, it became very difficult. BP is known by its workers to be extremely retaliatory. And these workers did not want to lose their jobs or be blacklisted from other work in the oil industry, and so they were reticent about speaking with the investigators directly, which caused us to have to impanel a grand jury and issue subpoenas for these individuals to testify. So, once ordered by the court to come in and testify, they were protected from retaliation. So they would come in. We would interview them through the unwieldy process of using the grand jury, which slowed the investigation down, but also netted us a significant amount of information. In addition, we issued subpoenas for documents. And then in the response to those documents, we were buried. We received the equivalent of about 62 million pages of documents that were going to require a great deal of time to sift through and develop the leads and the information from that information.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Scott —-

SCOTT WEST: So, by -— yes, yes.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Scott West, in this particular situation, you had the perhaps unusual situation — or how unusual is it to have so many workers basically providing inside information on what was going on and the problems involved, but yet at the same time, as you say, they were afraid to publicly come forward because of possible retaliation? How frequently does that happen in these kinds of situations, especially with oil companies?

SCOTT WEST: Well, it's pretty common in the — in industry. Workers do not want to lose their livelihoods, and so they’re reluctant to discuss openly about what’s going on in their companies. I found, through my career as an environmental investigator, that it was often easier to get witnesses to give up information on friends, co-workers and spouses before they would give it up on their employer. But ultimately, most people come around and do the right thing and provide the information that they have about criminal activity. In this particular instance, though, the vindictiveness of BP, as understood by the employees and conveyed to the investigators, was extreme. And so, it made it much more difficult.

But in terms of where my investigation was going, by June of '07, we had several investigators working on the case. We had several prosecutors from the Department of Justice, both from the US attorney's office in Alaska and from the Environmental Crimes Section at main Justice. A tremendous amount of man hours were being devoted to this case. And, in fact, the director of CID had told about that time that the investigation that we had in Alaska was one of the top two criminal cases that EPA had at the time. So there was a lot of momentum, a lot of interest in this case.

But by August of '07, something had shifted dramatically, and we were told by the US attorney's office in Alaska that the case would settle out for corporate misdemeanor. And at the meeting that I attended there in late August, the question was asked, if we had to go to trial today, what could we prove? And I had to admit that a trial at that moment, the most we could prove was a corporate misdemeanor. And then I said, “But we’re not done with our investigation. We’ve only just begun. We need another couple of years to really vet this out.” And they said, well, can I guarantee that I would be able to convict individuals. And I said, “Of course not. You can’t guarantee anything like that in the criminal investigative arena.” And so, with that, they said, “Well, then we’re done.” And I was in shock. It’s unheard of for a special agent in charge to be denied the opportunity to complete an investigation that was so far from nearing its end. And then —-

AMY GOODMAN: So you have the EPA considering penalties of upwards of, what, 800 -— or $672 million, possibly felony charges against BP executives, and they end up settling for $20 million?

SCOTT WEST: Yes, they ended up settling for $20 million. And I was told there was a couple of reasons for that $20 million figure. One, we have to go back to the Olympic Pipe Line case. The Olympic pipeline ruptured in Bellingham, Washington in 1999, and the resulting spill of gasoline into a stream caught fire. Three individuals were burned to death, and a stream was destroyed. That case was investigated by EPA out of the Seattle office. In '99 and 2000, it was considered a very significant criminal case in the US attorney's office in Seattle, which was at that time under the Clinton administration.

When the Bush administration took over at the Department of Justice, and the US attorney came in, it was —- became a bottom-of-the-barrel case and was ultimately settled out for a very low amount of money. And I have been talking with one of the investigators on that case, and he said the amount of money that was determined as the fine in that matched what the insurance companies were willing to pay. So Olympic Pipe Line essentially did not have to actually pay the fine, but it was covered by their insurance company. Now, that Olympic Pipe Line settlement became the benchmark, within the Bush Department of Justice, for environmental crime.

So then we had the Texas City explosion by BP that resulted in a number of deaths and injuries caused by failure to maintain the same sort of corporate practices that I saw in Alaska. And that case got wrapped up at the same time that mine did, and the settlement there, based upon the Olympic Pipe Line precedent, was set at $50 million. So they said, well, then, my spill case in Alaska could not get anywhere near that amount, because that had fatalities, and so they settled it for $20 million.

Now, for BP, $20 million is a rounding error, when you look at the amount of profits they make on a daily basis. It made no impact into changing their practices. The only thing that could really change the practices had been if we had been able to pursue and hold individuals accountable for their decisions. As you well know, the corporations do not make decisions; the individuals within them do. And so, to hold those individuals accountable would have been the proper conclusion to the investigation.

Now, now we’re seeing the same sort of thing in the Gulf, in this catastrophe. And information is coming to light that corners were cut and that employees’ concerns were being ignored. It’s the exact same pattern that we saw with BP in Alaska and with BP in Texas City. And I understand a couple of -—

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to take a break, Scott West —-


AMY GOODMAN: —- and then come back to this discussion. Scott West, former special agent in charge —-

SCOTT WEST: Certainly.

AMY GOODMAN: —- of the Criminal Investigation Division of the Environmental Protection Agency, speaking to us from Seattle. And we’re going to also talk about how rare it is to pierce the corporate veil and go from fines on a multi-billion-dollar corporation to actually charging corporate executives.

This is Democracy Now! Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Our guest, Scott West, former special agent in charge of the Criminal Investigation Division of the Environmental Protection Agency, he went after BP for criminal prosecution in the Alaska oil spill several years ago, was looking for criminal prosecution of the executives, but the Bush Justice Department ended up shutting down the investigation. As he was doing his investigation, the Texas City refinery, BP’s refinery, blew up, and fifteen workers were killed. Now, of course, recently in the latest oil explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, eleven workers were killed. Juan?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Scott West, you said you were shocked when the decision was made not to pursue criminal charges. What was your reaction subsequent to that, and has any retaliation or mistreatment occurred toward you afterwards?

SCOTT WEST: Well, my reaction was just shock. I had never seen that happen. It’s one thing to have thoroughly investigated a case, and you can have the lead investigator, who’s invested a lot of his or her personal energy and time into a case, and having concluded, looking under every rock and turning every stone, be frustrated with the fact that the evidence just isn’t there, even though that investigator is convinced that something should be done. But in those cases, you recognize, OK, we shut it down, and we move on. But in this particular instance, we had all of these documents that had not even been looked at and a whole list of individual witnesses that still needed to be interviewed.

And then you had the special agent in charge —- at that time, I was the SAC in Seattle. And you had the special agent in charge going to the Department of Justice and asking for an extension of time. When they first said, “No, we’re going to settle this,” I kept asking, you know, “Why the rush to settlement? I need at least a couple more years.” And they said, “No, we’re not going to do that.” And I said, “Well, give me a year.” And they said, “No.” And I said, “Six months.” “No.” “Three months.” “No, it’s over.” And I was incredulous, and I was making a lot of noise about that. And a very frustrating part was that my own management in Washington, DC failed to back me up. They fell right into lockstep with the Departments of Justice decision and accused me of being a zealot and all sorts of things and said that seventeen months was a perfectly adequate time to investigate a case like this, when they all know, from their own experience, that that’s a ridiculous statement.

AMY GOODMAN: Scott West, do you think if BP -—

SCOTT WEST: So I was quite —- yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think if BP executives were brought up on charges that we would see what we’re seeing in the Gulf of Mexico today?

SCOTT WEST: Well, I doubt we would be having this discussion and we’d be dealing with a catastrophe like this in the Gulf. What the government has done over the past several years is taught BP that it can do whatever it wants and will not be held accountable. So, decisions have been made, very poor decisions have been made, to increase profits and put workers at risk and been allowed and endorsed by the federal government. So, there’s been no -—[no audio]

AMY GOODMAN: Lost him. Sorry, that was the satellite connection to Seattle, which is what we were afraid of. But that was Scott West, former special agent in charge of the Criminal Investigation Division of the Environmental Protection Agency. He now works with the group Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. Again, was the one who attempted to bring BP executives up on charges, criminal charges, which is extremely rare in these corporate cases, from BP to Massey Energy in West Virginia. And this is an issue we will continue to investigate.

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