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Interior hires firm that OK'd Deepwater safety procedures to do autopsy of failed device

By Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 1, 2010; 9:20 PM

The Interior Department has hired a Norwegian firm to inspect the giant subsea device that failed to prevent the Macondo oil and gas well from exploding on April 20, although the same firm earlier gave a thumbs-up to safety procedures on board the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, which sank in the accident.

The Interior Department is planning to pay Det Norske Veritas (DNV) $1.3 million to conduct the autopsy of the 60-foot high, 380-ton blowout preventer, which is now sitting on a dock at the NASA Michoud assembly plant in Louisiana.

But some government and industry officials say that the firm's earlier work for Transocean, the owner and operator of the Deepwater Horizon, poses a conflict of interest.

In 2007, DNV inspected and recertified the Deepwater Horizon's safety procedures. In 2009, Transocean hired DNV to do a study of the reliability of subsea blowout preventers. That same year, DNV named a Transocean vice president, N. Pharr Smith, to be chairman of DNV's rig owners' committee, which provides "input" to DNV's rule-making process.

The American Bureau of Shipping, a nonprofit organization that classifies marine vessels and offshore rigs, did not submit the firm's name to do the blowout preventer autopsy because of its earlier work on the Deepwater Horizon. The organization said in a statement that "it assumed its earlier work on the rig comprised a conflict of interest. And so ABS is surprised that DNV has received the contract to do this work."

A diagnosis of what went wrong with the blowout preventer, or BOP, is key to explaining the explosion that triggered the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Future regulations, and possibly billions of dollars of legal liability, are linked to the outcome.

"It's of particular concern that DNV has done a specific analysis of the rig back in 2007, has opined separately on the reliability of BOPs and specifically taken the position that a second blind shear ram would only marginally make a difference," said Rafael Moure-Eraso, chairman of the Chemical Safety Board. "We think those positions are a conflict that should have been reviewed early."

DNV says that there is no conflict. Blaine Collins, spokesman for Det Norske Veritas Classification (Americas), said that "we haven't had any involvement in the inspection or certification of the blowout preventer."

He said DNV examined the Deepwater Horizon for compliance with the International Safety Management code, designed to provide "for the safe management and operation of ships and for pollution prevention."

Eileen Angelico, a spokeswoman for the joint Interior and Coast Guard team, said, "The process for which the contract was awarded for the forensic testing and scientific evaluation of the BOP was a competitive bidding process consistent with applicable regulations and policies."

The Interior Department has also been squabbling with the Chemical Safety Board over access to the BOP autopsy.

Interior has said it is consulting with DNV on who will get what is known as "tier 3" access. That puts experts in the same room where they can directly observe DNV's work and participate in decisions about how the failed device should be probed. Tier 2 access puts people in rooms watching the procedure on closed-circuit television.

The access is important, CSB officials said, because many tests can't be undone or repeated. Citing limited space and "safety concerns," Interior said last night that it would allow only one expert from the CSB, which often leads investigations of complex industrial accidents, including the 2005 explosion at BP's Texas City oil refinery.

The other groups that will get Tier 3 access include BP, Transocean and Cameron, the maker of the blowout preventer, as well as representatives of the Justice Department and plaintiffs in the multidistrict lawsuit being brought against BP.

The CSB said it would continue to press for wider access for its experts. Moure-Eraso said that the investigation should "give the public confidence that this activity is being conducted without influence that might produce something other than objective findings and conclusions."

The CSB, asked by the House Energy and Commerce Committee to conduct its own inquiry into the Deepwater Horizon blowout, has recruited four veteran experts who have no conflicts of interest, CSB officials said. Interior chose one who had extensive drilling experience at Exxon, excluding another with pipeline and welding expertise.

The dispute about who leads the investigation is only one of the controversies to wash over the blowout preventer since it was raised from the Gulf of Mexico sea floor and delivered on Sept. 11 to the Coast Guard.

Transocean believed that the enormous device should have been taken to a private industrial facility in Houston experienced at handling such equipment.

But a New Orleans judge ruled that for security reasons the device should be stored at the NASA facility .

The joint investigation force overseeing the blowout preventer autopsy has said that a structure would be built to house and shelter the massive piece of equipment. It was supposed to be completed by now.

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