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Small leaks spring at BP oil well; cap to stay in place for now

Oil and gas are leaking from the cap on BP's ruptured oil well but the cork will stay in place for now, the federal government's point man Thad Allen said Monday.

In Kenner, La., a new round of hearings on the Deepwater Horizon explosion opened Monday with members of a government panel pressing the chief rig engineer to expand on an earlier statement describing the chaotic final moments on the burning rig.

In that statement, which has not been made public, Stephen Bertone said that the captain of the rig screamed at a crew member for pressing either a distress button or a disconnect button and, referring to an injured man on a stretcher, said, "Leave him."

But at Monday's session of the joint U.S. Coast Guard and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, Bertone said, "I honestly don't feel anything in that statement needs to be changed," and his attorney, Stephen D. London, resisted efforts to get him to describe the scene anew.

Panel co-chairman Hung M. Nguyen of the Coast Guard said that the only way Bertone could avoid answering questions from the panel was to invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Nonetheless, the panel permitted Bertone to leave the witness table after about four hours of testimony without explicitly invoking the Fifth Amendment or elaborating.

The skirmish was the first of what could be several tests for the government panel. Two key BP officials who had been scheduled to testify this week canceled for medical reasons, including Donald Vidrine, one of the Deepwater Horizon's "company men," as those who represent BP on rigs are known.

The hearing did produce some new details.

One witness described how BP mixed a large quantity of two chemicals and injected them into the well to flush out drilling mud. But the chemicals aren't usually mixed together, and the injection of more than 400 barrels of dense, gray fluid were about double the quantity normally used for the task, said Leo Lindner, a drilling fluid specialist for contractor M-I Swaco.

The reason for the action: BP had hundreds of barrels of the two chemicals on hand and needed to dispose of it, Lindner testified. By first flushing it into the well, the company could take advantage of an exemption in an environmental law that otherwise would have prohibited the discharge of the hazardous waste into the gulf, he said.

"It's not something we've ever done before," he said.


Despite assurances from a BP specialist, Lindner conducted his own improvised experiment the night before the explosion to double-check. He mixed a gallon of one substance with a gallon of the other. When the well exploded, a fluid that fit its general description rained down on the rig. Bertone said part of the rig was covered with an inch or more of material that he said resembled "snot."

Bertone also testified that a variety of maintenance problems afflicted the Deepwater Horizon in the months before it exploded and sank, killing 11 workers and triggering the massive spill.

A BP audit of the rig in September found 390 maintenance issues that had not been resolved, BP lawyer Richard Godfrey said while questioning Bertone. Godfrey said the auditors estimated that it would take 3,545 hours to make repairs.

Bertone said many of the items listed in the September audit were based on a new maintenance program that was not tailored or relevant to the rig.

He testified that the computer on a chair used by the rig's driller had been malfunctioning and that its hard drive had been replaced. When the computer froze, it rendered the driller blind to conditions in the well unless he switched chairs. In addition, one of the rig's thrusters had been having problems for eight months, he said, and the rig had experienced partial blackouts.

Ronnie Penton, an attorney for one of the rig workers, said in an interview after the hearing that the double-sized dose of fluid skewed a crucial test of pressure in the well just hours before the blowout. Based on the test BP concluded it was safe to continue displacing the heavy mud from the well in favor of much lighter sea water.

Hilzenrath reported from Kenner, La.

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