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BP well site leader testifies that Halliburton had warned of potential problem

By David S. Hilzenrath and Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, July 21, 2010; A09

KENNER, LA. -- On April 16, four days before the Deepwater Horizon exploded in a fireball, one of the two "company men" who oversaw drilling operations on the oil rig for BP boarded a helicopter and headed for shore. Ironically, he went to a training program on blowout preventers.

Ronald Sepulvado, who had been working on the Deepwater Horizon for more than seven years, turned off his cellphone after he landed, stopped checking e-mail regularly and did not read an April 18 warning from contractor Halliburton that the well faced a potentially severe gas flow problem.

The next news he received about the rig came in the wee hours of April 21, when his son called him at a hotel and asked if he knew that the Deepwater Horizon was burning.

Sepulvado gave that account Tuesday as the first of the BP well site leaders to testify before a government panel looking into the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Seated at the witness table in an airport hotel here, he recalled:

-- Seeing an April 15 Halliburton report that said there was potential for a minor gas flow problem on the Deepwater rig. "I just don't read every line of that report because it's about 20 to 30 pages long," Sepulvado said. He said he was not aware of any warning to the crew about a potential problem.

-- Being present during an April audit that found that the rig's blowout preventer was well past its required inspection date. He said he didn't know inspections were required every three to five years.

-- Continuing to drill although the rig's blowout preventer was having problems with certain valves and "was leaking hydraulic fluid." Drilling at the Macondo well was not suspended because, Sepulvado said, "we assumed that everything was okay. When the blowout preventer was put to the ultimate test April 20, it failed catastrophically.

Sepulvado said he has been a well site leader for 33 years. Today, he has a new assignment: helping to drill one of the relief wells to kill the Macondo.

He spoke Tuesday at a hearing being conducted by a joint investigation board of the U.S. Coast Guard and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (an agency formerly known as the Minerals Management Service).

The hearings have highlighted a history of delayed maintenance and mechanical problems aboard the Deepwater Horizon.

While questioning Sepulvado, panel member Jason Mathews, of the agency, said a BP audit in September found a variety of problems, some of which had the potential to affect the rig's emergency preparedness. He said "a recommendation was made to the well team to suspend operations until many have been satisfactorily addressed."

Two other BP company men -- who were alternating shifts as top BP representatives on the rig after Sepulvado left -- were scheduled to testify but withdrew.

One was Robert Kaluza, who was less familiar with the Deepwater Horizon and who took over what was known as a troubled operation at a sensitive time. He invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination through his attorney. Donald Vidrine canceled for medical reasons, an explanation backed up with documents from his doctor, said Coast Guard Capt. Hung M. Nguyen, co-chairman of the investigating panel.

BP and government officials moved closer Tuesday toward agreement on another technique for dealing with the well, which was capped last week. Kent Wells, BP's senior vice president, said the company would like to implement a "static kill" of the well, which involves sending mud and later cement into the well through the cap. The final closing would still have to be performed by a relief well "bottom kill," now scheduled to begin in late July or early August if the weather remains good.

Wells said the company is eager to perform the static kill if the government approves it. Retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad W. Allen, the national incident commander, said he expected to have a final decision Wednesday.

While the operation could speed the final closing of the well -- an important consideration during the gulf's hurricane season -- it would also leave forever unanswered the question of how much oil has gushed out of the well.

The amount of oil that escaped will play a role in determining the dollar amount the company will have to pay the government and others.

Kaufman reported from Washington.

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