Monthly Archives: May 2010

Does size really matter?

It has been over four weeks now since the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico started. There will be government investigations into what caused the accident and how it could have been prevented. Here are some things that we know for sure at this point.

There is no such thing as a fail-safe system. Engineers and experts have assured the public repeatedly that an accident of such magnitude could never happen or are very unlikely to happen. Well it happened. They have been proven wrong. In fact BP’s 582-page emergency plan entitled “BP Gulf of Mexico Regional Oil Spill Response Plan” dated June 30, 2009 does not contain specific plans to deal with this accident. There was no discussion on how to stop a deep water blowout. That’s why it has taken so long to stop the blowout.

The second thing we know is that too many emergency response plans contain a lot of fluff and extraneous material just to make them look bulky and impressive. One would have thought that a 582-page document would have covered all possible worst case scenarios. There is evidence that parts of the BP plan contain boilerplate languages used by BP worldwide. One example that has been cited by the press is that the BP plan actually lists walruses as among the Gulf of Mexico’s sensitive biological resources. We all know that walruses’ habitats are in the arctic and sub arctic regions. They do not  live in the balmy waters in the Gulf of Mexico. The fact that no one has caught this mistake in the plan during the review process should be a cause of concern. It tells us that the regulatory agencies responsible for reviewing the BP plan missed the mark by a wide margin.

So what does this 582 page plan tell us? Size does not matter. It is the content and specifically local contents that really count.

The valuable lesson we learn from this disaster is that next time we prepare a spill response plan or a contingency plan we need to focus on site-specific environmental conditions and not pad these plans with boilerplate languages and fluff.

Disclaimers in Environmental Audit Reports

Have you ever hired a consultant to prepared an environmental audit or assessment and get a report that has many pages of disclaimers in it? There is always a tug of war between the client and the consultant as to what sort of disclaimers are appropriate in such a report. If a report disclaims everything, it is not going to be of much use to the clients. On the other hand a consultant should not have to bear responsibility for certain findings in the report or not in the report depending on certain circumstances.

There are basically three types of disclaimers that often arise in an assessment or audit report. The first one is certification. This issue is easy to deal with. No sane or rational environmental consultant will “certify” or “guarantee ” that a site for which an environmental assessment audits has been prepared is “clean”. The only certification that makes sense is a certification process that states that the assessment was conducted in accordance with generally accepted industrial standards.

The consultant should not be expected to guarantee or warrant the accuracy of any documents, records and reports that had been prepared by others. The best a consultant can do is to state that due care has been taken to verify or confirm the accuracy of such reports. The steps taken to verify or confirm should be clearly stated in the report.

The third issue pertains to the consultants ability to disclaim any knowledge of any environmental condition that are not apparent at the time the assessment or audit is conducted. This is reasonable. For example if somebody moves 10 drums of hazardous waste to the site AFTER the audit has been prepared, the consultant clearly should not be held liable for such omission.

Aside from these three areas of legitimate disclaimers, the consultant should be expected to be held accountable for the findings on lack of findings in the report.