Environmental groups have warned that corrosion inside a controversial new oil pipeline controlled by the British company BP could trigger a massive oil spill into some of the most environmentally-sensitive areas of the former Soviet Union.
As BP battles with a crisis in Alaska, where it had to shut down the biggest oil field in the US, campaigners say that safety flaws discovered there extend also to a 1,000-mile pipeline from the Caspian Sea to Turkey.
And the company stands accused of a management culture where whistleblowers are ignored or, worse, hounded out.
BP is accused of ignoring warnings about the effectiveness of a coating it uses to slow corrosion. Critics say the coating will fail, and corrosion will quickly cause the pipeline to break open, spilling oil into the wilds of Azerbaijan and Georgia.
The criticisms come as politicians in Washington plan to bring senior BP executives before Congressional hearings to face questions on a string of safety lapses. Corroded pipelines in Alaska caused a 200,000 gallon oilspill - the region's worst ever on land - and BP is shutting down the entire oilfield to conduct repairs. The field represents 8 per cent of all oil produced in the US, and its closure sent oil prices soaring this week.
The debacle comes barely a year after 15 people died in an explosion at a BP refinery in Texas, for which the company faces a legal bill of more than $1bn (£530m). It is nicknamed "Big Problems" in the US.
Platform, an oil industry monitoring group, says it is only a matter of time before the pipeline through the Caucasus - from Baku in Azerbaijan to the Mediterranean port of Ceyhan - also triggers a disaster.
The pipeline cuts through national parkland and mineral springs in Georgia, and triggered environmental protests when it was still at the planning stage.
Mika Minio Paluello, of Platform, said: "The public in Alaska is much more important to BP than the public in the Caucasus, so if the standards are not even met in the US then there is not much reason to believe that they will be met there."
Platform says BP ignored warnings from one of its engineering consultants about the coating used to prevent corrosion. Test results show it is already cracking at some points, although BP says this is not serious.
The project has been dogged by criticism, and earlier this year The Independent revealed a string of blunders. Builders cut off villages' water supplies, flooded farmland and allowed oil leaks; there were insufficient checks for pipes buckling in earthquake zones; welding work failed inspections; and those who complained were sacked or made to leave.
But in May, oil began flowing through the pipeline and it will carry a million barrels a day from the newly-developed oilfields off the Azeri coast. The industry is desperate for new sources as existing fields mature and as demand for oil rises.
BP dismissed the idea that it cuts corners and compromises safety. A spokes-man said: "The pipeline was constructed, and will be operated and maintained, to a high standard. It is protected against both internal and external corrosion."
The danger of corrosion in Alaska was brought to the attention of the BP board two years ago by a former consultant, who had become a conduit for concerns from internal whistleblowers. BP is conducting a review of safety and ethics procedures - including protections for whistleblowers - throughout its US operations. The company is facing a criminal investigation in Alaska, as well as tough fines from regulators.
Nick Hildyard, of another environmental monitoring group, The Corner House, said: "A management culture that treats credible concerns over safety as something to be resisted serves neither the public nor shareholders. Alaska shows only too clearly the long-term costs ."Reuse content