The environmental watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) is pushing for an investigation into whether the Bush Justice Department improperly shut down an investigation into a massive BP oil spill in Alaska. The allegations of potential political interference were lodged recently by EPA whistleblower Scott West, the former special agent in charge of the investigation, who retired from the agency in early November after 19 years of service. On West’s behalf, PEER filed a complaint on Monday requesting an investigation by the Justice Department’s Inspector General.
West’s allegations stem from a 2006 spill from a BP pipeline that leaked a quarter-million gallons of oil onto the Alaskan tundra, the largest in the history of Alaska’s North Slope. The company ignored workers’ warnings that maintenance was needed prior to the spill. An investigation by federal and state authorities ensued, but was cut short in October 2007 when the Justice Department announced it had reached a settlement with BP, in which the company was given a misdemeanor charge and fined $20 million. According to PEER’s compliant, this was a slap on the wrist compared with the penalties the oil giant should have received. “The fines proposed by Justice (to which BP immediately agreed) were only a fraction of what was legally required under the Alternative Fines Act. EPA had calculated the appropriate fine levels as several times what Justice offered BP—ranging from $58 million to $672 million.” The settlement also ensured that BP executives would not face potential criminal liability, according to the PEER complaint.
West, who’s now the chief of investigations and intelligence at Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, a wildlife conservation nonprofit, said that he had been “shocked” by the Justice Department’s haste to settle the case, and he suspected that a political appointee at the agency may have had a hand in making sure BP got off easy. According to a statement by West, which PEER submitted to the Justice Department:
In my judgment and experience as a senior federal environmental criminal investigator and manager, there was far too much work to be done to rush to settlement at that time. I vehemently asked for more time to complete the investigation and was denied. I was told this decision was made by a recent presidential appointee at the Department of Justice. Because this company has strong political connections and because the unprecedented decision to shut down the investigation before it was complete was made by a recent political appointee, I as an experienced criminal investigator and senior manager at the EPA could come to no other judgment than that something “sinister” did indeed occur in the summer of 2007.