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Finger-Pointing Over Deepwater Horizon Explosion Grows Heated!

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July 20, 2010: David Hammer / The Times-Picayune via – July 19, 2010

Testimony before a panel investigating the cause of the Deepwater Horizon explosion grew heated Monday as lawyers for various companies connected to the rig attempted to place blame on one another and angled to expose maintenance problems they say existed before the April 20 accident.

BP lawyers sought to highlight unfinished work by the rig owner, Transocean, and a rash of equipment problems. Witnesses who worked on the rig for BP’s contractors were guarded in their testimony, but at times piled more fuel on a growing pile of evidence suggesting BP authorized corner-cutting, cost-saving measures in the hours leading up to the accident. During the hearing in Kenner, Stephen Bertone, Transocean’s chief engineer on the rig, often said he didn’t know or couldn’t recall answers to questions.

But with BP lawyers pushing him, Bertone acknowledged that an audit he reviewed before the accident found 390 jobs undone, accounting for thousands of man-hours of work. Bertone also testified that he’d requested more employees from his bosses at Transocean and hadn’t received the help. A computer system used by the driller to track activity thousands of feet down in the well was malfunctioning in the days before the accident and technicians hadn’t arrived to fix it, Bertone said.

Ronnie Penton, a lawyer representing chief electronics technician Mike Williams, a subordinate of Bertone’s, suggested that some key safety functions on board the rig were set to bypass when the accident occurred. First, Penton asked if the general alarm was bypassed. Bertone said he didn’t know, but testified that he didn’t recall hearing it sound when the explosions began.

Then, Penton asked if a system for purging gaseous air from the drill shack had been bypassed for the last five years. Again, Bertone said he didn’t know and didn’t know who else would know. Penton said the so-called “mini-purge” system was critical for keeping natural gas — the same gas that ended up igniting the massive explosions onboard the rig — away from the drill floor. It appears the men on the drill floor were all killed instantaneously in the explosions.

Meanwhile, new information that raised questions about BP decisions popped up throughout the day’s testimony from three witnesses. BP and Halliburton officials argued in e-mails released last month about the use of key pieces of oil well safety equipment called centralizers, and testimony Monday suggested additional centralizers were ready on the rig but simply weren’t installed.

Centralizers are devices that are supposed to keep tubes in place in an oil well so that cement seals can set evenly on either side. E-mails released in June by a congressional committee showed that Halliburton recommended using more than 20 centralizers to make sure the cement seal was good, but BP officials settled on just six of the devices to save time and money.

But Lance John, the worker in charge of installing well casing and other tools for contractor Weatherford, testified that he only installed “four or five” centralizers and additional ones were delivered and never used. “They did order some more and talked about getting them out there,” John said. “Additional centralizers were delivered, but there were four or five run in the hole.”

Asked if the other centralizers were made available to the rig but simply weren’t used, John said, “Yes.” But John also testified that there were two different types of centralizers provided by Weatherford. It’s unclear if the unused pieces were the right kind for the well. Experts have said not using the recommended 21 centralizers was a fateful decision that caused cement to channel or “U-tube” and set poorly, possibly allowing natural gas to infiltrate the well and shoot up the hole, causing the explosion.

The drilling fluid specialist on the rig, Leo Lindner of the firm M-I SWACO, testified that an abnormally large volume of a fluid called “spacer” was used in the blowout preventer and upper part of the well before pressure tests were done on the well. He also said two different types of spacer were combined in a way he’d never seen before.

The use of double the quantity of the heavy fluid, plus the combination of two different kind of spacer, could have affected the blowout preventer, the massive stack of valves and slicers that failed to close off the well when the accident happened. The impact of the abnormal mixture on the pressure test results is unknown, and Lindner shied away from drawing any clear conclusions.

The reason the rig used the aberrant fluid is noteworthy, too. Ky Kirby, a lawyer for Anadarko Petroleum and MOEX Offshore, part owners of the well and recent adversaries of BP in disputes over responsibility, pushed the issue. Lindner said BP prompted him to combine the two doses of spacer because they could both be dumped overboard if they were both used in the well, but if one of the mixes hadn’t been used in the well, it would have required disposal as hazardous waste. Lindner testified that would have likely required an extra service boat to come out to pick up the unused material, adding time and expense to a project that was already more than $20 million overbudget and 43 days behind schedule.

Lindner said the two spacer mixes had not been combined before, and he tested a gallon of each the day before the accident, saying they didn’t “set,” or become too firm. But when used April 20, the mixture contained more than 400 barrels of viscous fluid, or about 8,500 times more than in the sample Lindner tested. Bertone testified earlier Monday that he saw unfamiliar slippery fluid that he likened to “snot” on the deck after the initial explosions.

Other testimony Monday made reference to a statement Bertone signed aboard a rescue vessel 26 hours after abandoning the rig, raising interesting questions about the way the crew responded to the accident.

The statement remains under seal, but was referenced by several attorneys Monday. In it, Bertone stated that Capt. Curt Kuchta, the rig’s master, yelled at one employee for pushing a distress button and ordered another to leave behind an injured man on a gurney, according to BP lawyer Richard Godfrey.

Godfrey pressured Bertone to explain his initial incident statement, but Bertone’s lawyer repeatedly advised him not to comment on it. That set off a long dispute over whether the witness would answer or if he had to invoke his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself.

It also brought objections from Transocean lawyer Ned Kohnke and Kuchta’s personal lawyer, Kyle Schonekas, who said the panel could have asked Kuchta about it when he testified in May. Raising the criticism now didn’t afford the captain an opportunity to defend himself or put his decisions into context, they said.

Similarly, subsea engineer Chris Pleasant testified in May that Kuchta urged him to calm down shortly after the explosions and not activate an emergency disconnect system. That disconnect could have stopped the flow of gas and oil to the rig and possibly minimized the fire. The system ended up not working when Pleasant later tried to activate it.

The Tonka Report Editor’s Note: Props to Kim in New Orleans for sending me this article. I’m just one guy here, folks. I can’t possibly cover it all so if you have any important news, please send it via the comments– SJH

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