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Drilling rig inspections scrutinized in wake of gulf disaster

Cleanup and containment efforts continue at the Gulf of Mexico site of the oil spill following the Deepwater Horizon explosion.

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By David S. Hilzenrath
Saturday, June 12, 2010

In May 2007, an auditor named David McKay arrived by helicopter on the oil rig Deepwater Horizon. His mission was to assess the rig's compliance with an international safety and environmental protection code.

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McKay's visit lasted about a day, and he found that maintenance on some of the equipment was overdue by as much six months. Some of that work was "safety critical." But none of it stood in the way of the rig's recertification for another five years.

After listening to McKay's account last month, the co-chairman of a panel investigating the April 20 disaster on the rig reacted with incredulity.

"I don't understand what is the value of this audit that you do," Coast Guard Capt. Hung M. Nguyen said during a hearing conducted by the Coast Guard and the federal Minerals Management Service.

Those doubts haven't stopped the Obama administration from giving more responsibility to organizations like McKay's employer, a company that examines such issues as safety, maintenance, emergency preparedness and environmental protection on drilling rigs. In issuing new requirements for drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, the Interior Department said this week that rig operators must have "an independent third party" confirm that their blowout preventers work.

The Deepwater Horizon was registered in the Marshall Islands, a Pacific archipelago that like many jurisdictions, authorizes private organizations such as McKay's employer, Det Norske Veritas (DNV), to inspect vessels that operate under its flag.

The owners of the oil rigs decide which of those organizations to hire, and they pay for the services. At a recent hearing, a Marshall Islands official was asked whether that arrangement presented a conflict of interest.

"In some persons' minds it might, but it's been a long-standing facility that's been in place for years," said Thomas F. Heinan, deputy commissioner of maritime affairs.

The U.S. Coast Guard inspects oil rigs, too. But in the case of rigs operating under foreign flags, it relies on the private inspectors to do the bulk of the work, Coast Guard Capt. Verne B. Gifford testified. For those platforms, the Coast Guard "goes onboard the vessel just to verify," a process that "usually takes maybe four to eight hours," Gifford said.

The Minerals Management Service inspects rigs' drilling equipment. But apparently some things can fall through the cracks, such as the emergency disconnect system that is supposed to enable a rig to rapidly disengage from a well in the event of a blowout.

During the Coast Guard-MMS hearings, Lt. Cmdr. Michael Odom said the Coast Guard doesn't inspect it: "That would be inspected by the MMS inspector whenever they're there."

MMS official Michael Saucier testified otherwise. Asked whether the MMS has "any type of requirements or inspection methodology to ensure that the emergency disconnect system works," he answered, "No."


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