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

By David S. Hilzenrath
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.

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."

"The evaluation of the BOP is being conducted under the supervision of federal authorities at a U.S. government facility and observed by a small army of lawyers for BP, the Justice Department and others," Transocean spokesman Brian Kennedy said.

One Transocean employee who was asked for input in the examination had served as a subsea supervisor on the Deepwater Horizon, though not at the time of the explosion, Moure-Eraso alleged. The government has since directed that his involvement cease.

Det Norske Veritas requested assistance from the Transocean specialist because he "is widely regarded as the best in the business," Kennedy said. "It's not a specialty that many individuals or entities possess."

In the new letter to Bromwich, the Chemical Safety Board chairman said Det Norske Veritas conducted a test Tuesday on the blowout preventer using a procedure provided by Cameron. That procedure "was substituted at the last minute" without review by other parties, Moure-Eraso wrote.

No one from Cameron returned a telephone message left at company offices in Houston. Both an answering service and a security guard for the company said they were unable to transfer a reporter to a company spokesman.

Det Norske Veritas spokesman Blaine Collins said his firm was contractually required to refer reporters to BOEM.

The Chemical Safety Board received a show of support this week from Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of a House subcommittee on energy and the environment. In a letter to Bromwich, he expressed "deep concern."

"If we are to hold the companies legally responsible for this accident, we can't afford any black mark on the investigation," Markey wrote.

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