BP steps up safety in asbestos scare

 By Warren Miller.    10th September 2010

BP is to equip all its Prudhoe Bay workers involved in stripping lagging from potentially leaky oil pipelines with respirators and other safety gear to protect them from the potential dangers of asbestos. The stepped-up safety measures are a further blow to BP in Alaska as the company claimed earlier this week that the asbestos found at the site, which has forced the shutdown of pipeline inspections at Prudhoe Bay, was in a form that did not pose a threat to humans.

The development comes amid revelations on investigations into how BP and an outside engineering group conducted inspections of the Prudhoe Bay oilfield. Reports of the inspections conducted between 2000 and 2004 by Coffman Engineers, a Seattle-based engineering firm, show that BP was warned about serious corrosion problems at least six years before the current problems occurred.

Prudhoe Bay Asbestos

The Alaska state attorney-general's office is also investigating whether BP and Coffman toned down the reports to make them more palatable to environmental inspectors. Darren Beaudo, a BP spokesman in Anchorage, said that there were differences between the draft and final reports on Prudhoe Bay because corrections needed to be made.

”At no point was Coffman forced to change anything, and at no point did BP ask for anything other than a correction to incorrect information.”

BP is reeling from two significant oil leaks at Prudhoe Bay that have sparked a flurry of federal investigations and forced the closure of three quarters of the field's capacity.

Asbestos, installed as part of the lagging material when the pipeline was built in the 1970s, can cause mesothelioma and other types of asbestos cancer and respiratory problems if it is inhaled. For several weeks, BP workers and contractors from outside engineering companies have been ripping off the asbestos lagging with no specialised asbestos protection.

The teams of asbestos workers, witnessed by The Times on a visit to Prudhoe Bay just two weeks ago, were wearing goggles, gloves and helmets but no respirators or specialised asbestos suits. BP halted inspections of its Prudhoe Bay pipeline this week after asbestos was found in a material used to stick insulation to the pipelines, but it said that it did not pose a health risk as the asbestos material was not prone to be inhaled. However, BP said that its industrial hygiene experts, in conjunction with federal health and safety officials, were now working on providing kits of personal protective equipment (PPEs) to all workers involved in stripping off the asbestos insulation lagging.

”We are now putting in place the appropriate PPEs and respirators are a likely outcome,” the company said. Although the company initially claimed the asbestos was not dangerous to humans, it is conducting extensive tests on the asbestos to see if any workers could have become contaminated while stripping lagging. ”We are now recreating the process of removing the insulation with inspectors wearing special suits with fibre-collecting devices to see if any of the asbestos could have become airborne,” a spokesman said.

For the past month, BP has been ferrying politicians, federal inspectors, executives and journalists to the Prudhoe Bay site to watch workers strip asbestos lagging from the pipes. On many occasions visitors, wearing little protective gear except for safety goggles and overalls, were allowed to stand within a few feet of the workers ripping away the asbestos laden lagging. BP said last night that the company would do everything to ensure that anyone exposed to any dangerous material would be kept informed of developments.

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