no wonder the rig explosion survivors were taken to that hotel in Kenner
By The Associated Press
May 11, 2010, 2:36PM
Workers aboard an exploding offshore drilling platform were told to sign statements denying they were hurt or witnessed the blast that rocked the rig, killed 11 and spewed millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, their attorneys said Tuesday.
Survivors floated for hours in life boats in the Gulf of Mexico after the disaster on the Deepwater Horizon, and were greeted by company officials onshore asking them to sign statements that they had no “first hand or personal knowledge” of the incident, attorneys said.
“These men are told they have to sign these statements or they can’t go home,” said Tony Buzbee, a Houston attorney for 10 Transocean workers. “I think it’s pretty callous, but I’m not surprised by it.”
Guy Cantwell, a spokesman for rig owner Transocean Ltd., refused to answer whether Transocean or any company attached to the firm had supplied the statement, claiming it was inappropriate to comment on litigation.
“Our focus has been on the crewmembers and their families, working with all parties in the response efforts and conducting a Transocean investigation into the incident,” he said Monday.
The men were kept for at least 10 hours at sea, then taken to a hotel on shore in Louisiana to sign the forms and be debriefed, according to Buzbee and court documents filed in lawsuits already brought by some Transocean employees. While such statements have no legal force and are a common industry practice, they are often used to attack the credibility of workers who later sue or testify in a lawsuit, Buzbee said.
“When I signed that I didn’t care what it was. I wanted to sign the papers to do whatever I had to do so me and my wife could leave to go home,” Chris Choy, a 23-year-old surviving worker said in an interview that aired Monday night with PBS’ “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.” ”I’d been up for 40 hours and was just going through hell.”
Choy said he tried to save Aaron Dale Burkeen of Mississippi, one of 11 workers missing and presumed dead following the explosion, before being evacuated from the burning rig to a cargo boat where he watched the rig go down in flames.
“One of my clients was trying to get counseling and they had them sign this form,” said Kurt Arnold, another Houston-based attorney who filed suit on behalf of three workers and the widow of a deceased crane operator last week. “They were trying to get as many of these guys to sign these statements as possible.”
Robert Wine, a BP spokesman, reviewed the statement and said it had “nothing to do with BP.”
“We did not make our 6 employees sign anything, let alone a waiver,” he said in a statement.
Rig workers or their families have filed at least several wrongful death or personal injury lawsuits against Transocean, rig operator BP PLC and other companies involved in the offshore drilling operation.
Fishermen, property owners, restaurateurs, resort companies and others have filed nearly 50 potential class-action lawsuits claiming the spill is causing or will cause steep economic losses.
The explosion and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon has triggered a major environmental disaster because an uncapped well continues to spew at least 210,000 gallons per day into the Gulf.
Kenner hearing: Question of detention of oil rig survivors raises tempers
By David Hammer, The Times-Picayune
May 12, 2010, 2:26PM
These updates are posted from the hearings being conducted Wednesday by the U.S. Coast Guard and the Minerals Management Service in Kenner, La., into the explosion and sinking of the oil rig Deepwater Horizon in April. The incident caused the massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill currently threatening the Louisiana coast.
Ted Jackson / The Times-Picayune
U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Barbara Wilk, Investigating officer, Coast guard Marine Safety Unit Morgan City is shown the ship’s log of the Damon Bankston by Transocean attorney Edward Kohnke IV, as he cross examines her during the fact-finding joint investigation into the Deepwater Horizon explosion, held at the Radisson Hotel in Kenner, La., Wednesday.
Tense legal issues arose with the first witness of the afternoon, Coast Guard incident investigator Lt. Barbara Wilk. She gave a brief description of how she arrived by helicopter on a ship near the incident a day later, to meet the victims being brought in on the Bankston. She described how she and other investigators collected statements from all of the survivors and then conducted face-to-face interviews with nine of them.
But Ned Kohnke, a lawyer for rig owner Transocean, went into litigation mode, cross-examining Wilk by trying to get her to interpret the Bankston’s log. Capt. Hung Nguyen, who runs the hearings for the Coast Guard, interrupted Wilk, telling Kohnke his questions were beyond Wilk’s area of expertise and irrelevant to the purpose of the hearing. Kohnke was indignant as he explained that lawsuits have been filed against Transocean for “keeping these mariners detained for its callous purposes,” so he wanted to establish that the Coast Guard investigation also kept the traumatized rig workers from their families.
“I’d like to go off this distraction you’re on right now,” Nguyen said.
Previous testimony posted earlier
The Coast Guard witnesses Wednesday mostly testified about oversight of safety on the rig itself, not the drilling operations, which are under the purview of the Minerals Management Service. The Coast Guard checks lifesaving procedures and equipment, and panel members were concerned about the fact that lifeboat weight capacity is calculated at 165 pounds per person, a figure based on passenger vessels with women and children, not drilling rigs staffed almost exclusively by grown men.
Ted Jackson / The Times-Picayune
Investigators question Michael Saucier, of MMS Regulatory and Inspections Programs during the fact-finding joint investigation into the Deepwater Horizon explosion, held at the Radisson Hotel in Kenner, La., Wednesday.
Witnesses testified that some survivors of the April 20 explosions that destroyed the Deepwater Horizon rig clung to the outside of lifeboats and rafts. They also had trouble getting a life raft free from the burning rig, rescuers said.
Capt. Hung Nguyen, who is leading the joint Coast Guard-MMS inquiry, noted that 115 crewmembers of the Deepwater Horizon were saved because a cargo ship, the Damon B. Bankston, just happened to be docked at the rig at the time and moved quickly to help men overboard. Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Michael Odom, who advises Coast Guard inspectors nationally, testified that it might be necessary to require rigs to keep a permanent stand-by vessel in case of future incidents.
“It’s something that needs to be looked at very closely,” Odom said. Especially as we move further and further offshore and units become more isolated, I personally think it’s something that needs to be required.”
Odom said many of the regulations are based on near-shore operations and are not providing the best guidance for the latest deepwater systems.
“The pace of the technology has definitely outrun the current regulations,” Odom said.
Like the Minerals Management Service, the U.S. Coast Guard inspects vessels, including drilling rigs, checking the non-drilling related systems on board. It’s control over Deepwater Horizon was somewhat limited because it flew the flag of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and foreign flag states have some monitoring using a non-governmental group of inspectors called a “classification society.”
But Coast Guard inspectors did visit the Deepwater Horizon nine times and never found any major issues, said Capt. Verne Gifford, who heads inspections and casualty investigations for the Coast Guard’s New Orleans District. On May 25, 2008, seawater got into the propulsion system and forced the evacuation of about half the crew of Deepwater Horizon, Gifford said.
The Coast Guard inspections follow up on the monitoring done by the classification society for the flag state. Gifford said the Deepwater Horizon used the Marshall Islands’ flag as a “flag of convenience” so it could comply with that country’s standards, and not the U.S. regulations.
Gifford said Coast Guard regulations governing drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf have not been updated since 1996, and the agency is awaiting the findings of the Deepwater Horizon investigative panel before making any changes.
Gifford said only five deepwater rigs under Coast Guard control were lost before the Horizon disaster, and none since 1988. Also, those were all due to storm damage, and none were the result of well blowouts like the one Horizon had April 20.
Previous testimony by Mike Saucier
A frustrated Coast Guard captain leading a government investigation of what went wrong in a massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill was incredulous today that federal inspectors have little control over some of the safety systems that failed on the Deepwater Horizon rig April 20.
Summarizing testimony by Mike Saucier, a regional supervisor for field operations for the federal Minerals Management Service, which oversees offshore drilling, Capt. Hung Nguyen said:
“So, MMS approves the design of the well, but they don’t check what type of pipe is used. And we have a study some time ago about whether a shear ram would cut a certain pipe (to shut off a well in an emergency), but we don’t know what was installed here. I don’t understand that.”
The testimony from Saucier established that the government agency he works for doesn’t do any certification of blowout preventers, the massive devices that are supposed to be the final cut off of an out-of-control well. Saucier said most of the action MMS has taken to control blowout preventers has been through “notices to lessees,” letters that go to drill operators but are not enforceable.
“We have self-certification of critical equipment and safety notices that are not enforceable…” Nguyen said, digesting the testimony before tailing off, pursing his lips and moving on to his next question.
The panel of three Coast Guard officials and three MMS representatives also appeared disappointed to learn from Saucier that tighter rules for monitoring deepwater drilling safety systems were proposed nine years ago, but got lost in the shuffle and never were adopted.
Saucier said new rules were written in 2001 to require secondary control systems for blowout preventers, the stacks of valves and pistons on the seafloor that are supposed to shut a well in an emergency, but MMS higher-ups in Washington never approved the regulations.
“As far as I know, they’re still up in headquarters,” he said.
If the rules had been adopted, they may not have prevented the catastrophe at Deepwater Horizon. Saucier testified that the rig’s drilling operations had several secondary control systems for the blowout preventer, but none of them were able to activate the shut-off mechanisms during the April 20 accident.
He said the Deepwater Horizon’s system had an emergency disconnect system, a deadman’s switch that kicks in if the connection with the subsea riser is lost, and the ability to manually activate valves and shut-off rams with a robotic submarine.
Saucier said there are 16 rigs in the Gulf of Mexico drilling in depths below 5,000 feet, the approximate depth of the Deepwater Horizon.
He said his inspectors conducted a “blitz inspection” of each of the remaining deepwater rigs after the Deepwater Horizon accident, and found that all of them had backup blowout preventer activation systems.
The American Petroleum Institute sets standards for blowout preventers, Saucier said, but he didn’t know if anyone ever checks if those standards are met. But Ned Kohnke, a representative of Transocean, the operator of Deepwater Horizon, said that doesn’t mean the crews on board the rigs aren’t going to make sure the equipment works properly.
“It is in their interest to perform these tests completely because if they cut corners, they are the corners being cut,” Kohnke said.
In questioning Saucier, the panel also found MMS deficiencies in making sure that crew members on a drilling rig or other oil platforms are actually capable of doing their jobs. Nguyen again pushed the issue, summarizing Saucier’s answers to highlight MMS’ lack of oversight.
“So, there’s no licensing requirements for critical positions for drilling operations,” Nguyen said. “The operator self-certifies, establishes what they think is adequate and then qualifies its own people to do the job.”
Saucier said his inspectors, while checking rig operations, also administer random tests to the rig workers based on their positions, and if someone fails, they must work under supervision. But Nguyen, in following up with another question, discovered that MMS doesn’t follow up to make sure deficient workers get proper on-the-job training.
“How do you close the loop?” he asked.
“That, I’m not quite sure,” Saucier said.
Perhaps tired of seeing MMS dragged through the mud, David Dykes, the MMS co-chairman on the panel, asked Saucier if there’s an International Association of Drilling Contractors training program that workers must pass before they can work on the rig. Saucier said there was, but again Nguyen pointed out the lack of government monitoring in that structure.
“That’s an industry group, right?” Nguyen said, clearly already aware that the answer was yes.