BP Blueprint for Pensacola

After fighting the oil giant for four years, Texas attorney Brent Coon says, “Nobody knows more about BP than we do.”

Coon heads Brent Coon & Associates, Beaumont, Texas law firm with 12 offices across the country. His firm has filed a lawsuit on behalf of a rig worker injured in the April 20 explosion at the Deepwater Horizon well in the Gulf of Mexico.

The trial attorney led the legal team that brought cases against BP for the Texas City refinery fire in March 2005 that killed 15 workers, injured 170 plant workers and the residents of nearby neighborhoods and rocked buildings 10 miles away.

Brent Coon represented Eva Rowe, who lost both of her parents in the tragic explosion, in a $1.2 billion lawsuit against British Petroleum. Rowe eventually settled her lawsuit against the oil giant for an undisclosed amount and $32 million in donations for education, training and charities such as St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee.

“BP has a definite strategy,” Coon told me. “They anticipate events and have a book that tells them what to do if this or that happens.

“In our case involving the Texas City Refinery, the judge allowed us to have all their communication strategies. We saw how they broke up into teams to deal with all communications, public relations and legal aspects of the case.”

In the Texas City explosion, BP officials contended that facility was exceptionally safe and that the prior events that have occurred were unrelated to the larger explosions, despite the evidence of lackadaisical safety practices and numerous resulting accidents. The blast was the third fatal accident within a year at the Texas City plant, the third largest refinery in the United States.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration didn’t agree with BP and fined the company in September 2005 a record $21.3 million and charged it with 300 health and safety violations in the explosion.

Two years later BP agreed to resolve a criminal investigation into the explosion by pleading guilty to a felony violation of the Clean Air Act, paying a $50 million fine, serving three years’ probation and complying with terms of the OSHA settlement.

This past September BP missed its deadline to make certain safety upgrades at the Texas City refinery that were agreed to under the 2005 settlement OSHA proposes to fine BP $87 million for the alleged settlement violations.

According to Coon, BP does follow a blueprint with disasters like the Texas City Refinery and the Deepwater Horizon Well:

1) Identify the leaders in the community and build relationships with them. They may start with the mayor or county commissioner. The larger the problem, the higher they will move up the political chain. They will reach out to governors, even the White House.

In Pensacola, we have seen leaders already side with BP officials. Before Florida Gov. Charlie Crist arrived on Saturday, May 1 for a briefing with the Coast Guard, BP, Florida Department of Environmental Protections and local officials, I overheard DEP Sec. Michael Sole tell one BP, “I will take care of you,” minutes before I was escorted out of the room by Sole’s communications director.

When Gov. Crist returned to Pensacola on Tuesday, May 4, Florida’s Emergency Management Director David Halstead told the local officials that “BP is a great partner.”

2) Have scripted communications to the public that mitigate the extent of the damages during the initial stages and then gradually release more severe information.

There is rarely anyone from BP with authority or technical knowledge attending the community meetings. The BP spokespeople are well-dressed, females who sincerely deliver a set series of talking points:

• BP is saddened by the tragedy at its Deepwater Horizon well.

• BP has its best minds working on stopping the underwater leaks at the drilling site.

• BP says it will protect our shores, our citizens.

• BP will be responsible for all costs.

If a specific technical question is asked about the oil rig operations, the spill or BP’s clean-up strategy, the standard response of Liz Castor, BP’s director of civic affairs, has been, “I’m not a technical person.”

Questions about claims, even those of Florida’s Chief Financial Officer, Alex Sink, are referred to BP’s 1-800 hotline.

Also remember how the original reports were only 1,000 bbls of crude leaking, two days later BP had to admit it was 5,000 bbl.

3) “It’s all about damage control, says Coon. “They have people assigned to determine how BP will be impacted by the event: Do we lose the right to business in the area? What are the potential monetary damages?”

BP CEO Tony Hayward told NPR on Monday that his company is fully responsible for the cleanup and any “legitimate” claims from the oil spill. However, BP officials have tried to separate themselves from the liabilities–and inevitable fines–attached to the explosion and deaths at the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform.

“The rig was Transocean’s…the riser was Transocean’s,” Daren Beaudo, a BP representative at the company’s Unified Command in Mobile, Alabama told IN on Monday. “BP was not conducting the drilling.”

4) They will identify those most likely to sue BP and try to negotiate settlements as quickly as possible without involving attorneys. According to Coon, in the Texas City case, BP went to neighborhoods around the refinery and tried to settle quickly.

I have already reported that BP was hiring charter and commercial fishing boats to help with the oil spill clean-up in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. The boats were chartered for fees up to $5,000, which sounds great for fishermen who may not be able to work for years.

There was one catch. The boat owners had to sign waivers that held BP harmless and could possibly been used by the oil company to avoid any future lawsuits by the boat owners and their deckhands.
The Attorney Generals of both Alabama and Florida got wind of the waivers and issued warnings for locals to sign away their rights.

On Monday, May 3, BP began to back off requiring the waivers claiming they were mistakenly included in the packets and were just standard forms used by the company. I got a copy of the Voluntary Waiver and Release Forms. They weren’t generic forms, but specifically cited the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and even give the date of the event, April 20, 2010.