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Oil spill hearings focus on who was in charge after the blast

By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 5, 2010; 10:03 PM

METAIRIE, LA. - The BP oil spill cleanup is winding down, but the lawyers are just warming up. The gusher of litigation might not be capped for years.

At a Holiday Inn near the freeway here, a conference room was packed Tuesday with some big lumber from the legal profession. The lawyers represented oil giant BP, Transocean, Halliburton, Cameron, Anadarko, Weatherford, Dril-Quip, M-I Swaco, Sperry Sun and some of the survivors of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

This is the latest set of hearings by the U.S. Coast Guard and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, which have been investigating the April 20 blowout that killed 11 people. The marine board will write a report and make recommendations for improved safety and regulations. For the lawyers, this is all material for the trials and lawsuits yet to come.

More than 300 lawsuits reportedly have been filed against BP, but that's only one part of the legal story. The companies involved with the Deepwater Horizon disaster are likely to sue one another, though so far they've mostly battled via news releases and stinging quotes from the corporate communications departments. Meanwhile, the Justice Department is conducting a criminal investigation.

"There are the injury-death cases; there's the stockholder cases; there's the environmental cases; there's the economic loss cases; and all the government cases," said lawyer Ronnie Penton, who has multiple clients who have filed suit against BP and who specializes in injury-death litigation.

"It could go on for 10 years," said Kyle Schonekas, attorney for the sunken rig's captain, Curt Kuchta of Transocean.

Schonekas provided the day's highlight-reel performance. The co-chairman of the investigative panel, Coast Guard Capt. Hung Nguyen, had been asking many witnesses about Kuchta's actions immediately after the explosion, focusing on whether Kuchta was fully in command of the situation. Finally, Schonekas leapt to his feet and loudly declared, "This is nothing more than an effort, continually by Captain Nguyen, to character assassinate my client."

He then made a motion to have Nguyen recuse himself because of his "bias."

Nguyen did not respond. The board member running the proceeding, retired federal judge Wayne Andersen, quickly denied the motion.

There were other squalls in the windowless Magnolia Room on this unseasonably cool day in New Orleans. At one point in the morning, Nguyen chided Transocean, the rig's owner, for what he said was a persistent unwillingness to produce witnesses and documents. Nguyen directed a Coast Guard aide to place five enlarged documents on an easel at the front of the room. Nguyen said the documents indicated that senior Transocean executives knew that some company rigs had questionable safety records.

"To me, Transocean has not been responsive to the requests of this board," Nguyen said.

Transocean attorneys took turns popping up from their seats and firing back.

"Under the rules which we operate, those documents are hearsay," Transocean attorney Ned Kohnke said. "You're saying they're not hearsay. You're wrong."

A Transocean spokesman issued a statement later in the day: "Transocean has produced more witnesses than any other party involved in this investigation and significant volumes of documentary evidence, including audit records of the Deepwater Horizon. Any assertion to the contrary is simply not correct."

A recurring issue in this week's hearings has been who was in charge of the initial emergency response to the explosion and fire on the rig. The witnesses have described a chaotic situation, rife with misinformation, failure to communicate and questionable decisions to have the boats dump seawater on the raging blaze.

Opening the Tuesday session, Robert McKechnie, a Transocean manager, testified that he and his colleagues had trouble reaching anyone at the Coast Guard in the hours after the explosion.

They were concerned that the water dumped on the rig from water cannons on boats responding to a Mayday call could potentially destabilize the Deepwater Horizon through "downflooding," in which water gets into the hull. The rig began to list and, 36 hours after the explosion, sank beneath the waves to the bottom of the gulf.

"There didn't seem to be anybody that I could identify who was controlling the activity of those boats," said McKechnie, who raced to Transocean's Houston office after receiving a call at 3:10 a.m. on April 21. "We tried to contact the Coast Guard. . . . We were informed that the Coast Guard were not controlling the fire."

Asked who had the "ultimate decision-making" authority for the response, McKechnie said, "I don't know."

Doug Martin, president of Smit Salvage Americas, who was also in Transocean's command center in Houston, testified that he didn't think the firefighting effort caused the rig to sink. Rather, he said, structural damage from multiple explosions was probably to blame.

A Coast Guard official testified Monday that the Coast Guard didn't take an active role in firefighting as the rig burned.

"We monitored what was going on, but we weren't directing any firefighting resources," Capt. James Hanzalik said. "We're not trained firefighters."

Yancy Keplinger, a Transocean dynamic positioning officer who worked on the rig's bridge and survived the explosion, testified about the frantic minutes after the Macondo well blew out and two explosions rocked the Deepwater Horizon.

"It was just chaos," Keplinger said. He said that when it came time to abandon ship, he was standing behind the captain, Curt Kuchta, when Kuchta told the people on a life raft to lower the raft to the water and not worry about him.

Keplinger then spoke up: "What about us?"

The captain, seeing him for the first time, said, "I don't know about you, but I'm going to jump."

The captain jumped about 80 feet to the water, and Keplinger followed moments later. Both swam to the raft.

When Nguyen asked Keplinger whether he expected the "I don't know about you" response from the captain, he said, "No, I would have expected more from a person of his caliber, in his position."

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