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Hybrid hearings in Houston on oil spill is focusing on safety recommendations

As BP reduces the size of the "vessels of opportunity" program, fishermen who work in more remote areas are expressing concern about oil they have recently spotted in places where boats have not been deployed.

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By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 24, 2010

HOUSTON -- A Transocean rig manager testified Monday that, about a week before the April 20 Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, he challenged his counterparts at BP to explain their decision to swap out the most experienced well-site leader -- or "company man" -- for someone less familiar with the rig. The discussion took place at a delicate moment in the operation to abandon the problem-plagued well temporarily.

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"We did have numerous well-control issues throughout drilling this well," Transocean's Paul Johnson, who managed the Deepwater Horizon from Houston, testified at a federal fact-finding hearing in Houston. When he found out that the new company man, Robert Kaluza, would soon fly to the rig, he said, "I was a little concerned. . . . We didn't know who this gentleman was."

The BP executives assured him that Kaluza -- who has declined to testify in the probe -- had extensive experience in deep-water drilling. Johnson said he was satisfied with the response.

But the night of April 20, a colleague phoned him with a bulletin: "I don't want to alarm you, but we're getting Mayday calls from the Horizon."

Johnson's many hours of testimony in a Hilton hotel across from the Houston Hobby Airport came as part of an investigation by the Coast Guard and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement. Other BP and Transocean employees are scheduled to testify this week. The previous hearings were in a New Orleans suburb, but for technical reasons involving jurisdiction and subpoenas, the government decided to relocate to Houston.

The hearings are something of a hybrid. The federal investigators are not looking to bring charges, but they will write a report, with safety recommendations, at the end of their inquiry.

But the witnesses are sworn in, and they are questioned for hours at a stretch. The hotel conference room Monday was jammed with high-powered lawyers representing multibillion-dollar companies and various rig workers involved in the disaster. The testimony could become material for the hundreds of lawsuits that have been filed. The Justice Department is separately conducting a criminal probe.

In the earlier hearings in New Orleans, there were frequent objections from the lawyers and the hearings seemed at times on the verge of disintegrating. To counter the chaos, federal authorities added two members to the investigatory board, most notably recently retired United States district judge Wayne Andersen. Andersen ran the hearing Monday and was largely successful at keeping the lawyers on their best behavior.

"It's uniquely complicated," Andersen said late last week. "The board cannot let this become another sparring ground for determining civil liabilities between the various parties, or free legal discovery for matters not relevant to the board's mission."

The search for a clear explanation of what went wrong April 20 is hampered by the technological complexity of the mile-deep well and the organizational complexity of an operation that involved multiple companies with disparate financial interests.

BP owned the well and leased the rig from Transocean for more than half a million dollars a day. The rig was overdue at another site, and BP hoped to plug and abandon the Macondo well and leave the site.

It was during a final procedure, the displacement of heavy mud with lighter sea water in the well, that gas surged onto the rig and exploded, killing 11 workers. The rig sank two days later and eventually nearly 5 million barrels of oil flowed into the gulf.

The government has struggled to sort out who knew what and when, and who had authority over and responsibility for various aspects of the drilling operation and rig maintenance.

A top Transocean executive who happened to be visiting the Deepwater Horizon when it exploded has accused BP of culpability for the blowout.

"The more I learn about this well, the madder I get," Transocean's Buddy Trahan, who has sued BP and other contractors, told Bloomberg in an interview in Houston. "It is pretty clear to me now it was a screwed-up plan."


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