A near-miss accident at the BP Whiting Refinery in 2014 nearly killed people and resulted in $258 million in lost production, according to an internal company investigation leaked by the environmental group Greenpeace.

The loss was the worldwide company's largest due to any single incident in recent years and the "most significant" safety lapse, the report found. In separate incidents, the BP Whiting Refinery also lost tens of thousands of engineering documents related to its recent modernization project and violated Environmental Protection Agency regulations by releasing too many emissions during a flare-up.

Greenpeace obtained the internal report from 2015, which it shared with The Times and other media outlets across the world. The environmental activist group said it shows BP is not managing critical safety information well, thereby increasing the risk of explosions and other accidents at plants like the BP Whiting Refinery.

BP spokesman Michael Abendhoff said "any suggestion that this report indicates BP is wavering from its safety commitment is wrong."

"BP is committed to safe, reliable and compliant operations," he said. "With that in mind, BP regularly conducts internal assessments in an effort to make improvements to its operations. This particular report focused on potential enhancements to how BP manages engineering data."

The London-based oil giant had just completed its $4.2 billion modernization project project in Whiting when an incident took place in 2014 with the newly commissioned hydrotreater, equipment that removes sulfur and other impurities from gasoline. The report describes it as a high-potential incident, known in the industry as a "HiPo," which the International Association of Oil & Gas Producers characterizes as a near-miss accident that could have caused fatalities.

"Whiting experienced an incident in January 2014 which was very complex in nature involving multiple parties across the lifecycle, from design through commissioning," the 2015 report said. "Incident analysis also identified that multiple deficiencies in engineering information management contributed to the failure of barriers to prevent the incident from occurring. The incident was a HiPo and cost BP $258 million in lost production."

The report, compiled by BP managers and outside consultants IBM and WorleyParsons, said BP should invest $170 million in safety over the next five years. It found poor engineering information management caused or contributed to 15 percent of the 500 incidents in recent years, and said there was an "urgent need" for improvement to prevent near-fatal accidents like the one in Whiting two years ago.

One failing occurred after the modernization project, when not all of the 1.4 million documents generated were properly turned over to refinery management, according to the report.

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"There were numerous gaps detected during project handover including no true tracking of outstanding drawings, a lack of clarity on what was to be as-built and gaps between site technical practices and what was delivered from the project," the report stated. "This lead [sic] to 2,700 drawings being unaccounted for, 70,000 missing files and numerous as-built drawings delivered 5 years after asset start-up. In addition documents and data went missing via those leaving the project, either stored on their PC hard drives or an unidentified BP location."

More than 30,000 documents ended up in a portable hard drive. BP had to track down retired employees and contractors to recover missing files.

Faulty equipment also caused the refinery to emit more than allowed by federal rules at an unspecified time, according to the company report.

"Whiting also provided another example where inaccurate instrument and wiring data had led to inadvertently triggering a flare of an entire unit's contents resulting in EPA violations as well as lost product," the report said.

Greenpeace said the report showed BP was cutting corners and increasing risk of leaks and vapor gas explosions at its facilities around the world. 

Abendoff said the company is continuously working to improve safety such as through new training programs and technologies.

"It’s working: over the last five years, BP’s safety record has steadily improved," he said. "The company’s total number of Tier 1 process safety events — the most consequential events involving an unplanned or uncontrolled release of materials — continues to fall and is below the average for the industry."

Greenpeace contends history seems to have taught BP little.

"Nearly seven years have passed since the Deepwater Horizon disaster and BP’s sloppy approach to a crucial aspect of safety hasn’t changed," Greenpeace Senior Climate Adviser Charlie Kronick said. "The same happy-go-lucky attitude that played a role in major accidents in the past is seemingly still reflected in the management of safety information across the oil giant’s operations from rig to refinery."


Business Reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.