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Arrangement with firms taints probe of Deepwater oil spill, U.S. agency alleges

Oil companies stress one another's failures in a Senate hearing as cleanup and containment efforts continue in the Gulf of Mexico, after the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig April 20.

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 23, 2010; 9:09 PM

The federal government's effort to determine what caused the Deepwater Horizon oil spill has been tainted because companies with a stake in the outcome have been allowed to participate in an examination of the massive blowout preventer at the heart of overlapping investigations, a federal agency has alleged.

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The arrangement "has seriously undermined the credibility of the testing" and "jeopardizes the public's trust in the examination process," Rafael Moure-Eraso, chairman of the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, said in a letter of protest Thursday.

Transocean, which owned the Deepwater Horizon rig, and Cameron, which made the blowout preventer, "have been granted unique access to the testing process," Moure-Eraso wrote.

He called for the government to halt its examination of the blowout preventer until the two companies are removed from "any hands-on role."

The blowout preventer, which sat atop the Macondo well, was supposed to choke the flow of oil and gas in the event of a blowout - as happened this April. It is undergoing technical analysis in a NASA facility in Louisiana, and the testing could help determine civil and criminal liability for one of the nation's worst environmental catastrophes.

The latest allegations add to potential conflicts of interest built into the investigative process. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEM), formerly known as the Minerals Management Service, has a leading role in the investigation and was responsible for overseeing offshore drilling. The U.S. Coast Guard also has a leading role and shared responsibility for inspecting rigs.

BOEM enlisted the private firm Det Norske Veritas to manage the examination of the blowout preventer. That firm had certified the Deepwater Horizon's compliance with an international safety and environmental protection code.

Transocean and Cameron have been permitted to observe and provide input on the testing.

"The companies have been permitted to provide technical expertise through an agreement reached with the court, for the sole purpose of answering any technical questions the DNV personnel performing the examination may have," BOEM spokeswoman Melissa Schwartz said by e-mail. "Representatives from these companies are observers only and are not involved in the examination."

The Chemical Safety Board, an independent agency, also was granted a role in the examination of the blowout preventer, but it has complained that it has been marginalized.

In a Dec. 13 letter to BOEM Director Michael Bromwich that the Chemical Safety Board also distributed Thursday, Moure-Eraso alleged that Transocean was allowed to perform "hands-on, irreversible modifications to the BOP and associated equipment, outside the effective observation of other parties."

A Transocean spokesman called the account "totally unfounded."


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