ConocoPhillips oil spill case will make the state’s waters safer

t_omni_path = “pi|tools|printthis” t_omni_pagename = “pi|tools|printthis|print view” t_omni_pagetype = “print view” t_omni_sagepath = “pi|tools” t_omni_events=”PrintThis” t_omni_evars=”eVar31|pi_art_338132″ SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER

Jim Legg

Whistle-blower Jim Legg’s surreptitious documentation of rule-breaking by ConocoPhillips resulted in the oil company’s agreement to pay a fine, make changes in how it operates at sea and accept closer government oversight of its activities. (Mike Urban / P-I)

Last updated November 4, 2007 11:41 p.m. PTBy ERIC NALDER

A whistle-blower’s courage and federal prosecutors in Alaska have given Washington state some extra protection against oil spills in local waters.

And their actions have resulted in something that didn’t happen after a mysterious spill blackened Vashon Island beaches three years ago: criminal accountability for ConocoPhillips, the nation’s third-largest oil company.

For the next three years, the company’s five huge tankers will operate under the collective gaze of a court-appointed monitor, officials from the U.S. Probation Office, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Anchorage, an independent auditor and the Coast Guard.

Every aspect of ship operations is due to be scrutinized, recorded on paper and observed during shipboard visits, according to a 75-page plea agreement and attachments. The company must also install more safety devices on ships designed to prevent spills.

ConocoPhillips tankers regularly visit refineries in Washington and elsewhere carrying tens of millions of gallons of Alaskan crude oil.

Failure to comply with probation could result in felony prosecution, according to court documents, although compliance could shorten the probation period by a year.

ConocoPhillips must pay for the scrutiny program and the improvements, at an estimated cost of $5 million, including changes it had previously made, according to court documents.

None of the new requirements is the direct result of the October 2004 spill in Dalco Passage in southern Puget Sound, which was discovered in the middle of the night by a tugboat captain.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jim Oesterle, who investigated that case, said he has no doubt that ConocoPhillips caused the spill, estimated at 1,000 gallons, and he believes that the new requirements are what lawyers in his Seattle office would have imposed had they proved it.

But instead, ConocoPhillips got tagged for a much smaller spill, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean in January 2004. After that spill, ship’s officers conducted an elaborate cover-up that was caught on videotape.

Oesterle said the federal government decided, as both investigations proceeded, to concentrate on getting criminal sanctions against ConocoPhillips for the midocean spill, rather than the Dalco Passage mishap, because they “had more evidence” of the midocean event.

“I would just say generally, from a combination of witness testimony and various documentary evidence, we had a very strong case,” said Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Todd Mikolop, who handled the midocean investigation as a special assistant U.S. attorney in Anchorage.

In the Dalco Passage case, ConocoPhillips paid civil penalties to the federal and state governments but never admitted causing it. Chemical analysis pointed to a ConocoPhillips ship — the Polar Texas — as the only suspect.

Unlike the Dalco Passage event, though, the company was unable to avoid culpability for the midocean spill because of the actions of whistle-blower Jim Legg, a crew member who will receive half the $500,000 fine ConocoPhillips must pay for the spill.

ConocoPhillips also must donate $2 million to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

Legg’s story was first revealed in March 2005 in a series in the Seattle P-I, which preceded the government’s grand jury investigation and which Legg says spurred federal authorities into action. ConocoPhillips pleaded guilty to a single felony count two weeks ago in U.S. District Court in Anchorage.

Legg, who lives in Olympia and is starting a new career selling commercial real estate, sneaked a video camera onto an upper deck of the tanker and taped officers lowering a crewman over the side of the Polar Discovery in midocean, a very dangerous maneuver. The crewman used a power washer to clean oil from the side of the ship before it reached Hawaii.

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A video shot in January 2004 by whistle-blower Jim Legg shows Polar Discovery officers lowering a crewman over the side of the ship to clean off evidence of an oil spill that had occurred four days earlier because of a botched oil transfer operation.

Later, Legg sneaked out at night in his pajamas and surreptitiously made copies of the ship’s logbooks. The ship’s captain had made a false entry in the bridge logbook to cover up the spill. And the crew had failed to record, in an engine room log, the botched oil transfer that caused a spill of engine-room waste oil onto the deck and out into the ocean.

Legg provided all that material to federal investigators and to the P-I. The video and the documents sank ConocoPhillips in this case, prosecutors said. Officers from the Polar Discovery told the P-I that they didn’t think the oil reached the ocean, but the plea agreement stated that it did.

ConocoPhillips pleaded guilty to only one felony, the failure to make the entry into the engine room log.

Legg doesn’t understand why ConocoPhillips pleaded guilty to just one count, when he had provided federal investigators and the P-I with evidence of not only the oil spill in midocean, but also of an unreported electrical explosion aboard a ConocoPhillips tanker in San Francisco Bay; of an instance in which a drunken chief engineer was allowed aboard his tanker in Port Angeles without being reported or punished; and of a number of other safety and environmental violations.

“I know they could have been fined for more of what they did,” Legg said.

But Legg is proud that his actions have had some result.

“Reading this agreement, I actually felt good about it. Although most of what was written (in the requirements) has always been there, it will probably now be enforced, at least for a while,” he said. “And I had some part of that.”

“I’m not really in a position to comment about Mr. Legg,” said ConocoPhillips spokesman Jeff Callender. “I will say that both as a result of our own investigation, as well as the one we cooperated on with the government, they identified some opportunities for improvements. And we are acting on that. We want to sustain an atmosphere on our ships where people are 100 percent compliant.”

Callender added that ConocoPhillips will make similar improvements to the seven foreign-flagged tankers it uses for international routes. The tankers the company operates in Washington waters are among the most modern in the world.

Mikolop, the special assistant U.S. attorney in Anchorage, said the plea agreement, and the probation requirements, took into account other allegations made by Legg. He said the big advantage of getting ConocoPhillips to plead guilty to at least one crime was the ability to force the company to comply with a probationary plan. That was impossible in a civil case like that of Dalco Passage.

“We can’t send a corporation to jail. One of the goals of the justice system is deterrence,” said Mikolop, who is now deputy legal officer for the regional Coast Guard office in Seattle.

ConocoPhillips has, on its own initiative, added an additional officer to its crew of nearly two dozen on each tanker, a deck officer whose job is to oversee environmental compliance, Callender said.

Spill officials with the state Ecology Department said they couldn’t comment on the probation agreement because they hadn’t read it yet.

“It has to be nothing but better than what it was before. I look forward to seeing it,” said Dale Jensen, the state spills program manager. “Any work towards the improvement of how they manage their fleet is certainly going to be a benefit for the people and waters of the state.”

Environmentalists welcomed the extra scrutiny of ConocoPhillips, but said the probation agreement doesn’t provide many operational improvements.

“They really have added an extra amount of record keeping and oversight, plus the tagging (of valves) is totally different,” said Stan Stephens, a cruise operator in Prince Williams Sound in Alaska and a former multiterm president and current board member of the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens Advisory Council. “Otherwise, it isn’t much different. Isn’t much different. They are not really getting slapped really hard by it.”

“The fact this is the penalty for flagrantly trying to cover up a spill, and on top of it the fact they never owned up to Dalco Pass, this is a completely tepid response to a corporation’s disregard for environmental policy,” said Fred Felleman, northwest consultant for Friends of Earth in Seattle.

Felleman said, though, that the plea agreement should give environmentalists extra leverage over ConocoPhillips, and at least in that regard, “I was delighted.”

The plea agreement requires ConocoPhillips to encourage whistle-blowers to report violations of probation requirements and pollution laws. It also requires the company to discipline or terminate anyone who fails to report violations.

Stephens and Felleman were both skeptical of the true effects of that requirement, which overlaps with federal laws. Both said federal and state laws do almost nothing, in fact, to protect whistle-blowers aboard oil tankers against retaliation. Federal pollutions laws do allow whistle-blowers to be paid a portion of a company’s fine if a violation they reported is proved — as was the case with Legg.

“Any time somebody whistle-blows, they really don’t have any protection. They get blacklisted,” Stephens said.

Tom Carpenter, director of the Seattle office of the Government Accountability Project, said whistle-blower protections have been degraded at both the state and federal levels.

“It is a failed system,” Carpenter said.

Legg said he was demoted from third assistant engineer to engineman, a non-officer position, after he reported a drunk-looking chief engineer for coming aboard a tanker in Port Angeles. He said that after he reported the midocean spill by the Polar Discovery, in May 2004, he was threatened with termination and ignored at first by the Coast Guard, to whom he had reported the violation.

Legg said he was overcome by stress and never returned to the tankers for fear of his life. The company paid him for 2 1/2 years while he stayed home. He recently settled a lawsuit for an undisclosed amount against ConocoPhillips. He said his life didn’t start turning around until the P-I published his allegations in 2005.

“The reality is, my life has gotten much better,” Legg said. “In order to point the finger at someone else, you need to look at yourself. It has changed the way I look at myself.”

P-I reporter Eric Nalder can be reached at 206-448-8011 or

© 1998-2007 Seattle Post-Intelligencer

~ by fredfelleman on November 5, 2007.

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