U.S. lawmakers on Thursday charged that BP Plc chief Tony Hayward paid no attention to increasing reports of safety problems with the deepwater well in the Gulf of Mexico that is now spewing oil and destroying ecology along the coast.

“We could find no evidence that you paid any attention to any of the risks that BP was taking,” charged Congressman Henry Waxman as he opened hearings into the disaster in the House of Representatives.

Mr. Hayward’s opening remarks were interrupted by a shouting protestor smeared in a black substance meant to resemble oil. When he restarted, Mr. Hayward declared himself “personally devastated” by the April 20 explosion that cost the lives of 11 oil rig workers.

“The explosion ... never should have happened and I’m deeply sorry that it did,” Mr. Hayward said. He said BP was doing “everything we can to secure the well” and that its current containment effort was now capturing about 20,000 barrels per day.

Lawmakers vent at BP

“I understand the concerns, frustrations and anger being voiced across the country,” Mr. Hayward said. “We will not rest until we make this right.” Lawmakers vented at BP throughout the hearing as Mr. Hayward, as the chief executive, appeared before Congress for the first time since the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion caused the worst oil spill in U.S. history.

“What’s most upsetting about this travesty is that it could have been avoided,” said Democratic Representative Jan Shakowsky, calling the spill “one of the most shameful acts by a corporation in American history.” Representative after representative on the House energy panel took Mr. Hayward to task in questioning on the company’s safety record, pointing to specific violations and decisions made at the Deepwater Horizon well that they say compromised safety.

Mr. Hayward continued to insist that he had focussed “like a laser” on safety since he became CEO three years ago, but said he would need to wait until investigations were complete before taking a stance on what went wrong at the well.

In written testimony, he elaborated saying: “I understand people want a simple answer about why this happened and who is to blame. The truth, however, is that this is a complex accident, caused by an unprecedented combination of failures. A number of companies are involved, including BP, and it is simply too early to understand the cause. There is still extensive work to do.” But Mr. Waxman pressed him for specifics and accused Mr. Hayward of dodging questions.

Weak govt. regulation flayed

“Don’t you feel any sense of responsibility for these decisions?” Mr. Waxman demanded, noting Mr. Hayward’s 28 years working in the oil industry. Mr. Hayward was not the only official in the cross—hairs. Lawmakers from both political parties also criticized weak government regulation for allowing the oil company to skirt safety rules.

Others slammed President Barack Obama’s administration for a lacklustre response to the oil spill. Republican Marsha Blackburn argued that the spill “could have been contained” if the government responded faster.

Another Republican lambasted the Obama administration for wringing a 20—billion—dollar pledge from BP to cover claims for damages from local businesses in the Gulf affected by the disaster. BP agreed to the fund Wednesday after Mr. Obama met with BP executives.

“I’m ashamed that a corporation could be subjected to a 20— billion—dollar shakedown,” Representative Joe Barton said, calling it a “slush fund” that was “unprecedented in US history.” The White House took Mr. Barton to task for his remarks. “What is shameful is that Joe Barton seems to have more concern for big corporations that caused this disaster than the fishermen, small business owners and communities whose lives have been devastated by the destruction,” spokesman Robert Gibbs said in a statement.

Litany of other safety violations

The hearing also extended beyond the most recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, as many lawmakers targeted BP for a litany of other safety violations, including a separate spill in Alaska in 2006 and an oil refinery explosion in Texas in 2005.

While Democrat Betty Sutton charged BP with a “culture of carelessness,” Democrat Peter Welch suggested it was time for Mr. Hayward to resign, arguing the spill could have been prevented.

“Mr Hayward, it’s not an aberration,” Mr. Welch said. “For BP, regrettably, this is business as usual.”