BP ignored safety alert at Gulf of Mexico well, new report claims

Document shows oil spewing in the gulf could reach as high as 100,000 barrels a day, many times higher than initial estimates

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WASHINGTON // It was yet another weekend of bad publicity for BP. First came news that the company's embattled chief executive, Tony Hayward, was taking time off from the gulf oil spill response to attend a yacht race in the clean waters off the English coast. Then came fresh accusations that the oil giant continues to understate the scale of the disaster, and new evidence that it ignored warnings about the safety of the ill-fated well.

In appearances on Sunday talk shows, US legislators and White House officials continued to rip into the company, and BP shares were down again yesterday as the worst environmental crisis in US history continued for a 63rd day with no end in sight. Rahm Emanuel, US president Barack Obama's chief of staff, said Mr Hayward's ill-timed vacation was "part of a long line of [public relations] gaffes and mistakes". "I think we can all conclude that Tony Hayward is not going to have a second career in PR consulting," Mr Emanuel told ABC's This Week.

Ed Markey, the chairman of the House Energy and Environment Subcommittee, sharply criticised BP after his office released a document showing that the company's worst-case scenario for the amount of oil spewing in the gulf is as high as 100,000 barrels a day - many times higher than its initial estimates. "First they said it was only 1,000 barrels, then they said it was 5,000 barrels, now we're up to 100,000 barrels," he told NBC's Meet the Press, saying the company was "either lying or grossly incompetent".

The two-page document released by Mr Markey's office said in a footnote that the amount of oil could reach 100,000 barrels if the blowout preventer and wellhead are removed and if the company "incorrectly modelled the restrictions". BP officials have rejected Mr Markey's assertion, saying that those conditions are not in place and never have been. Robert Wine, a BP spokesman, told AFP that the worst-case scenario estimate "has nothing (to do) with the amount of oil that's actually escaping at the moment".

Meanwhile, there are new reports suggesting that the company ignored warnings that may have helped it avert the disaster. Tyrone Benton, who worked on the Deepwater Horizon rig, told the BBC that he identified a leak in the rig's faulty blowout preventer weeks before the disaster. The blowout preventer is designed to close off the well and prevent major spills. US legislators have released e-mails and documents containing other warnings from BP workers and contractors that were apparently ignored.

In a statement yesterday, BP said it had spent nearly US$2 billion (Dh7.34bn) since the explosion on April 20 that sank the Deepwater Horizon, ruptured the well and killed 11 crewmen. The company also said it had received more than 65,000 claims and made 32,000 payments totalling more than $105 million. Under pressure from the White House, BP agreed last week to establish a $20bn fund to compensate those affected by the spill. It also said it would suspend dividend payments to shareholders.

Kenneth Feinberg, the independent administrator appointed by the White House to oversee the $20bn fund, told CNN on Monday that the fund may not cover all the costs. "The $20bn might not be enough, maybe it will. Whatever it takes, these individuals and businesses must get paid," said Mr Feinberg, an arbitration lawyer who oversaw a similar fund for the victims of the September 11 attacks. BP shares, which have lost nearly half their value since the disaster began, were down nearly 2.5 per cent in mid-day trading yesterday.