Fired Over Cleanup Data, BP Worker Says


      NEW ORLEANS (CN) - A leader in BP's oil spill cleanup claims the company fired him for refusing to change data so that BP could claim the cleanup phase was over and it could begin restoration, which a BP vice president told him "would have an upward impact on BP stock prices."
     August Walter sued BP America in Federal Court.
     "Walter began his employment with BP under its Gulf Coast Restoration Organization ('GCRO') with the position of State Planning Lead for the purpose of developing a descriptive plan to accomplish the cleaning of oil caused by the BP oil spill in April 2010," according to the complaint.
     He claims BP fired him on Nov. 9, 2011, the day the company announced that it had cleaned up the Gulf Coast and was moving into the "restoration" phase of cleanup.
     Walter says BP's cleanup plans had to be approved by the U.S. Coast Guard's Federal On-Scene Coordinator, and comply with federal and state environmental laws and regulations. He says BP's Shoreline Treatment Recommendations (STRs) also had to comply with the laws and be approved by the Coast Guard coordinator.
     However, Walter says: "BP refused to follow the STRs and Walter opposed BP's refusal to comply. Ultimately BP demanded that Walter misrepresent clean-up data to get approval from the unified command to Legacy Coast Guard management."
     Walter says the misrepresented data was meant to mislead Coast Guard officials into believing that the cleanup in Mississippi was nearly complete.
     "Walter opposed this action and advised BP management and Unified Command of the problem. Walter was terminated shortly thereafter for a pretextual reason," according to the complaint.
     BP's cleanup requires Coast Guard approval because BP shares responsibility for the cleanup with the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard holds 51 percent responsibility for the cleanup, BP 49 percent, according to the complaint.
     The complaint states: "Beginning in May and June, 2011 Walter began to convey his concerns that BP Mississippi operations were intentionally not following the plans for cleanup delineated by the U.S. government, the Coast Guard, and the Department of Interior."
     Walter claims BP was "defying" the Shoreline Treatment Recommendation by picking up only tar balls, while ignoring other, smaller oil debris.
     "In September 2011 Walter advised BP that he was required to let the stakeholders know that BP was not following the STR," according to the complaint.
     In response, Walter says, "BP began a malicious campaign to discredit him in retaliation for his opposition to BP's refusal to reasonably follow environmental rules and regulations."
     Walter says that after he complained that BP was intentionally leaving oil on the beaches, the National Park Service and the Coast Guard scheduled a surprise visit to East Ship Island, where cleanup operations were going on. On the island, the federal representatives found BP's cleanup efforts were off the mark and the "these stakeholders reported verbally and in writing problems with BP's cleanup status," the complaint states.
     Walter adds: "From approximately September 27, 2011 until the end of October 2011 Walter had multiple disagreements with BP management regarding the fact that BP was taking shortcuts in not following many environmental requirements ...
     "Although in mid October 2011 BP assured Walter that the relevant Gulf Coast Shoreline Cleanup completion requirements and milestones were being met it shortly became obvious the contrary was true. By October 17, 2011 BP Operations once again began to deviate from the plan in spite of the fact that the USCG [U.S. Coast Guard], NPS [National Park Service], OPS [Oceanic Preservation Society] ... all were in agreement of priority of island segments to work due to environmental impact with eagles."
     Walter says he took the environmental priority list and created a branch action plan that was approved by the federal on-scene coordinator.
     "Shortly thereafter Walter found that BP Operations had blatantly and intentionally deviated and were not working segments of environmental concern," the complaint states.
     Walter says he wrote plans for how to maneuver around protected migratory birds, such as eagles. Cleanup is supposed to stop when protected birds are present.
     On Nov. 3, 2011, Walter says, he was called to a meeting with BP's vice president of operations, Carla Fontenot. He says he was told that BP's primary objective was to gain the confidence of the Coast Guard so that the cleanup could move into another phase, even though BP was still in violation of the cleanup plan.
     He says he was told that his support in the transition in phases of the cleanup was required.
     The complaint states: "Fontenot conveyed to Walter that his support was required on this as it would have an upward impact on BP stock prices."
     The complaint continues: "Fontenot specifically threatened Walter stating that she 'had people watching him that would call her' if he messed up by continuing to insist that BP strictly implement the STR in accordance with the approved environmental plans and milestones."
     Walter says that when BP's operations section chief, Mike Harrison, saw the Mississippi shoreline treatment response data, he was unhappy with the numbers and "basically demanded that Walter falsify the data by changing the number of segments that still needed to be cleaned to a lower number. This was all based on money and had nothing to do with actually cleaning up the oil or meeting the STR or environmental requirements."
     Walter says that when he refused to fake the numbers Harrison demanded, he was put on leave until BP could come up with a reason to fire him.
     "When Walter challenged Harrison, asking why Harrison did not want to tell the FOSC [federal on-scene coordinator] the true number of segments that had failed and needed to be re-cleaned, Harrison exclaimed, 'That is not the story I want to tell.' Once again, Walter strongly opposed falsifying environmental data. This was protected activity," the complaint states.
     Walter says he was put on leave on Nov. 8, "for no non-retaliatory reason."
     He says, "the real purpose for Walter's being placed on leave was to give [BP planning performance coordinator Monique] Boudreaux and others time to interview his co-workers to come up with pretextual reasons for his termination."
     He adds, "it was necessary to remove Walter on November 8, 2011 because BP did not want him to interfere with the targeted time of November 30, 2011 ... as the period for the important milestone as BP was planning and hoping to go to virtual IMT at this time but they could not until approved by Coast Guard."
     Virtual IMT represents the time at which the "unified command" would change to "Legacy Coast Guard management (Virtual IMT)," according to the complaint.
     BP fired him on Nov. 9.
     On that day, BP and the Coast Guard announced to the public that 90 percent of the oil from the Deepwater Horizon blowout had been cleaned up, and BP said it was moving from cleanup into the restoration phase.
     Walter seeks damages for whistleblower violations and wrongful termination.
     He is represented by James Arruebarrena of New Orleans.