First Up -- Clear Skies, Fouled Waters

The waters of the Gulf have changed, but not BP's approach to safety.

What a difference a few months can make. In late March, I visited the Panama City, Fla., area as construction crews were busy completing the Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport. The first international airport built in the United States in more than a decade, the airport features a 10,000-foot runway and is designed for LEED certification. The old airport only had regular commercial service from Delta, a 6,000-foot runway and, like many older airports, had seen the community grow up around it so that it no longer met FAA standards.

Area manufacturers told me they were eagerly awaiting the opening of the new airport and the additional service being offered by Southwest Airlines. David Delie, president and CEO of Berg Steel Pipe Corp., has his major customers in Houston. Since there were no direct flights from Panama City to Houston, Delie had to connect through Atlanta, or travel to Pensacola or another more distant airport in order to make the Houston trip. It was time-consuming, inconvenient and more expensive than he liked.

That situation changed dramatically on May 23 when the new airport opened. The airport is part of a development plan that has been in the works for more than a decade. St. Joe Corp., owner of a 75,000-acre tract that surrounds the airport, has been working with area politicians and economic development officials for years on its West Bay Plan, which features areas for commercial and residential development as well as nearly 41,000 acres set aside for conservation.

Not everyone has been in favor of the airport project. The Natural Resources Defense Council sued developers, arguing that the airport construction on what had largely been wetlands would cause damage to the ecosystem, but two lawsuits were dismissed. Finally, construction on the airport began in 2008.

Local economic development officials say the area offers a series of advantages for businesses looking to come to the area, including:

  • Seven military bases
  • Multiple deepwater ports
  • An improved network of highways
  • Attractive living with a warm, sunny climate and white sand beaches

The new airport is open and operating, development plans continue for the area, but the sunny optimism I encountered on that trip must now be tinged with the same foreboding many who depend on the pristine beaches of Florida are sharing since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded on April 20.

"This is an event that has changed the company, and the commitment to safety has been reinvigorated." said BP spokesman Neil Chapman. However, Chapman wasn't speaking about the oil rig explosion that killed 11 workers. He was talking about the explosion at the company's Texas City refinery in 2005 that killed 15 contract workers.

In its investigation of the Texas City explosion, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB), the federal agency charged with investigating chemical accidents, found that "safety system deficiencies created a workplace ripe for human error to occur." Among its findings, CSB faulted BP for a work environment at Texas City that encouraged BP employees to deviate from procedures.

Now flash forward to BP internal communications about the events leading up to the Deepwater Horizon explosion cited in a letter to BP CEO Tony Hayward from Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif. He notes that the Macondo well was "significantly behind schedule," and this "appears to have created pressure to take shortcuts to speed finishing the well." Waxman focuses on five crucial decisions about the drilling made by BP, such as a decision to "use a well design with few barriers to gas flow," and concludes that the "common feature of these five decisions is that they posed a trade-off between cost and well safety."

The test of a safety culture is how it performs in all the day-to-day decisions made when the pressure is on, not in how it crafts declarations of regret. For BP, the count may be two strikes and out.

Steve Minter is IW's chief editor. He is based in Cleveland.

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