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Lawyers taking center stage in oil-spill investigation

By Joel Achenbach and David S. Hilzenrath
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, August 25, 2010; 8:49 PM

HOUSTON - The Macondo well gushes no more, but the lawyers are just getting started.

They go wall to wall in a Hilton hotel conference room, sitting at long tables that face the outnumbered investigators assigned to find the cause of the April 20 Deepwater Horizon disaster. The thermometer may be hitting 100 outside, but the room is kept perfect for the men and women in power suits, many from Washington, Chicago, New Orleans and Dallas.

The investigation, a joint operation by the Coast Guard and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, is supposed to help the government determine what went wrong and recommend reforms. But the hearings have largely been taken over by lawyers for the major players in the disaster - including BP, rig owner Transocean and the contractor for the cement job, Halliburton - who are trying to prepare for what are sure to be many civil trials to come.

They are generally civil to one another, but their clients have conflicting interests, with billions of dollars at stake and a Justice Department probe shadowing everything.

"The 900-pound gorilla in the room is the criminal investigation," said Pat Fanning, the attorney for one of the top Transocean managers on the rig.

Testimony this week has focused on usual suspects: the construction of the well and maintenance of the blowout preventer. But who's to blame, what piece of equipment or procedure proved fatally deficient, or to what degree the calamity could have been foreseen are issues the lawyers will likely tangle over for years to come.

In a new twist, BP has declared that a Halliburton employee, Jesse Gagliano, who warned that the cement job on the Macondo well might not function properly, should have stopped the operation outright if he had real doubts about safety.

Gagliano testified Tuesday that he told BP engineers on April 15 that if BP proceeded with the cement job as designed, it would have a gas-flow problem. Three days later, he wrote that, with only seven centralizers to center the casing, "this well is considered to have a SEVERE gas flow problem."

Gagliano said he and the BP engineers worked together, late into the night of April 15, trying to resolve the problem. He recommended that BP use 21 centralizers to keep the casing properly positioned. But even though an additional 15 were flown to the rig, BP chose not to use them. The cementing job proceeded with six.

Under cross-examination by BP lawyer Rick Godfrey, Gagliano acknowledged that in some documents, as well as during several conference calls with BP and Transocean managers, he did not cite the gas-flow potential or raise other alarms.

"BP had made their decision," Gagliano said. "They had decided not to follow my recommendation."

After he testified, BP released a pointed statement: "If Halliburton had significant concerns about its ability to provide a safe and high-quality cement job in the Macondo well, then it had the responsibility and obligation to refuse to perform the job. To do otherwise would have been morally repugnant."

On Wednesday, Halliburton fired back: "Ultimately, Halliburton acted on the decisions of and at the explicit direction of" BP.

Wednesday's testimony elicited details about the blowout preventer (BOP), a piece of Transocean equipment. A top BP executive, Harry Thierens, testified that, as engineers struggled to contain the gusher, he was shocked to learn that the plumbing on the BOP had been connected improperly.

"It would mean that the pipe rams could not be closed," Thierens said. He said a plumbing line that was supposed to be connected to one of the rams meant to cut off a runaway well was actually connected to a test ram that would be of no use in containing the well.

"When I learned this news I lost all faith in this BOP stack plumbing," Thierens wrote in a log he kept during the intervention.

Transocean issued a statement saying the BOP had passed numerous tests prior to the incident, adding that the plumbing issue had no impact on efforts to shut the well from the burning rig because it affected only operations by underwater robots. The issue was discovered and a workaround implemented "within 24 hours, Transocean said. "The well was not shut down by BP for another several months."

Mark Hay, a Transocean subsea supervisor responsible for the BOP, testified that the device was reconfigured with a test ram at BP's request.

Hay testified that the Deepwater Horizon's BOP had a history of leaks, and that it was widely known on the rig that the device was not recertified every three to five years, as the manufacturer's schedule specified. But he said it was tested and maintained regularly.

A photograph displayed at the hearing appeared to show there were two pipes passing through the blowout preventer on the bottom of the gulf.

Asked if the blowout preventer was designed to shear two pipes at once, Hay said it was not.

Transocean subsea superintendent William Stringfellow Jr. was asked about a federal regulation governing BOP maintenance.

"I would say that it's probably out of compliance with the regulation," Stringfellow said.

Recertifying the BOP can take 90 days or longer, Stringfellow said. Performing some work every five years is not practical, partly because disassembling the preventer can create problems where there were none, he said.

The testimony about the BOP left a board co-chairman, Coast Guard Capt. Hung Nguyen, less than comfortable.

"Things seem a little bit loose to me," he said.

achenbachj@washpost.com hilzenrath@washpost.com

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