By the time a massive oil-pipeline spill was discovered in March on Alaska's North Slope, the job of BP's senior corrosion engineer had...

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WASHINGTON — By the time a massive oil-pipeline spill was discovered in March on Alaska’s North Slope, the job of BP’s senior corrosion engineer had been left unfilled for more than a year, according to an internal company audit.

This vacancy, and others, hindered BP’s ability to maintain a “strategic view” of its corrosion-prevention activities, the audit found. A BP spokesman said Friday that a replacement for the senior corrosion engineer has yet to be found.

BP Exploration Alaska also left vacant the top job in its pipeline-corrosion oversight division in Alaska for more than six months in 2005, according to the audit. That division, formally known as the Corrosion, Inspection and Chemicals (CIC) Group, was headed until the end of 2004 by Richard Woollam, who on Thursday refused to testify under oath before a House subcommittee.

Among the key recommendations of the audit team, led by BP’s director of engineering, John Baxter, was “an urgent need” to “develop and implement a succession program for key positions in the CIC organization.”

And given the increased scrutiny on BP’s operations in Alaska after the March spill, the company also needs to examine “the size and professional qualification” of its pipeline-corrosion-monitoring division.

Despite Woollam’s silence on Thursday, lawmakers blasted other executives of the London-based oil giant for pipeline-maintenance lapses and sought explanations for what may have caused the March discharge of more than 200,000 gallons of oil in the Alaskan tundra.

Lost in that exchange with lawmakers, however, was the fact that after transferring Woollam to a nonsupervisory job in Houston in January 2005, the company did not fill the vacancy he left until July.

The June audit said BP Exploration Alaska’s “operations integrity” position was also vacant, and it noted that the leader of its “maintenance and reliability team” was “fairly new” to the job.

“Such factors reduce the capacity of the teams to take a broader strategic view of the corrosion-management program,” the audit concluded.

BP announced Thursday that the company has hired three outside corrosion experts to independently review the Alaska pipeline problems and to make recommendations for improving BP’s corrosion-prevention policies.