When asked to choose between environmental concerns, employee health and safety, and high returns on investment, all too often corporations choose short-term profit and disregard long-term costs. Take, for example, British Petroleum (BP). Recent reports indicate that 345 BP pipeline workers were exposed to asbestos in the course of inspection and repairs. The work involved removal from the pipes’ surface of thick insulation and the resin sealant underneath. The resin sealant, which had been applied during the 1970s, required the use of grinding machinery in order to clean the pipes down to the bare metal. Corporate management failed to warn workers of fact that the resin sealant was impregnated with asbestos. State safety inspectors reported numerous violations on BP’s part during an investigation, which revealed “several apparent weaknesses in the safety culture.” According to the report, these violations were due to several factors, including a seriously understaffed safety department and a sense of urgency following the March 2006 Prudhoe spill that in turn led to possible carelessness in the corporation’s “rush to comply with real and perceived congressional and regulatory agency demands.”
According to BP representatives, the asbestos danger was discovered in August of 2006, after which the work was stopped long enough to train employees and provide respirators and other protective gear. The company also ran its own air tests; not surprisingly, these showed asbestos levels to be far below the danger limit. State health and safety workers were not present when the work was going on, and had no way of confirming BP’s results. On 29 November, the BP corporation was placed on probation by U.S. District Court Judge Ralph Beistline. He ordered BP to pay $20 million in punitive fines for a 2006 oil spill on Prudhoe Bay and told their executives to “put more emphasis on pipeline upkeep and a little less emphasis on profit.” Like the oil industry in general, BP has enjoyed record profits over the past few years while its executives have gotten seven and eight-figure salaries.