pleading the 5th
Oil spill hearings: BP man on Deepwater Horizon rig refuses to testify, says he will take the Fifth
By David Hammer, The Times-Picayune
May 26, 2010, 6:34PM
This is an update from the joint U.S. Coast Guard and Minerals Management Service hearings in Kenner on Wednesday into the explosion and fire aboard the Deepwater Horizon oil rig on April 20, which killed 11 workers and created the Gulf of Mexico oil spill currently fouling Louisiana’s coast.
One of BP’s company men on the Deepwater Horizon when it exploded, Robert Kaluza, has declined to testify before the investigative panel in Kenner, citing his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself, the Coast Guard said.
Kaluza was scheduled to testify Thursday in the joint U.S. Coast Guard and Minerals Management Services hearings in Kenner.
Donald Vidrine of BP also was scheduled to testify Thursday, but he has withdrawn, citing illness, the Coast Guard said.
BP under economic pressure
A member of the federal panel investigating why the Deepwater Horizon exploded April 20 presented evidence Wednesday that BP had wanted to use the rig to drill another well by early March and would have overspent by about $22 million by the time of the accident.
Jason Mathews of the Minerals Management Service said BP applied to use the Deepwater Horizon rig to drill in another oil field on March 8, 43 days before the rig workers, in a rush to finish months of work in the oil field known as Mississippi Canyon 252, removed heavy drilling mud that could have held down explosive natural gas.
Based on earlier testimony that a typical well costs a lease-holder like BP $500,000 a day, Mathews asserted that the company had already overspent by $21 million to $22 million. He asked BP’s health and safety team leader, Steve Tink, if that was correct; Tink said he wasn’t familiar enough with drilling operations to answer.
Members of the Deepwater Horizon Joint Investigation team, from left, are: Lt. Robert Butts, USCG; Ross Wheatley, USCG; Capt. Hung Nguyen, USCG; David Dykes, MMS; Jason Mathews, MMS; and John McCarroll, MMS.
It’s the first time anyone has tried to quantify the economic pressures that may have led BP to do things like remove the drilling mud before placing a final cement plug or send a subcontractor’s team home without performing the most definitive test of the well-cementing job.
Witness is harangued
David McKay, a surveyor from Det Norske Veritas, performed two International Safety Management audits for the Marshall Islands on the Deepwater Horizon rig since 2005. He said he found they had some issues with overdue maintenance on certain pieces of equipment and some crew members that had not been properly trained because of turnover. But he said none of the issues raised to the level of “nonconformity.”
When the chairman of the investigative panel, Coast Guard Capt. Hung Nguyen, asked McKay for more specifics, the inspector said he couldn’t recall. When Nguyen asked him to explain what would be an issue of nonconformity, McKay referred to a printed manual and declined to give any further explanation, saying he was here to testify about “facts, not opinion.”
Nguyen, who has shown a level of righteous indignation over testimony in the past, harangued McKay about his response.
“I don’t understand what the value of this audit is,” Nguyen said. “Every time we ask you something you say you don’t recall.”
In addition to periodic inspections by the U.S. Minerals Management Service, Deepwater Horizon’s flag state, Marshall Islands, hires its own inspection organization to audit activities and systems on the rig. The American Bureau of Shipping performs those surveys, and chief surveyor John David Forsyth testified that his agency last inspected the rig’s failed blowout preventer in 2005, before it was installed as the final fail-safe against a well blowout. Asked by BP’s lawyer if the fact that there were no further certifications of the blowout preventer came at Transocean’s request, Forsyth said, “Yes, it was.”
Forsyth said the American Bureau of Shipping was notified of two events, a flood on the rig and a blackout, but determined they did not raise enough concerns to withdraw the rig’s certifications.
Chief mechanic’s testimony
The chief mechanic on the Deepwater Horizon testified Wednesday that he was at a planning meeting 11 hours before the rig exploded at which the BP company man overruled drillers from rig owner Transocean and insisted on displacing protective drilling mud from the riser that connected the rig to the oil well.
“I recall a skirmish between the company man, the OIM (offshore installation manager), the tool-pusher and the driller,” said Doug Brown, one of 115 rig workers who survived the April 20 disaster. “The driller was outlining what would be taking place, whereupon the company man stood up and said, ‘No, we’ll be having some changes to that.’ It had to do with displacing the riser for later on. The OIM, tool-pusher and driller disagreed with that, but the company man said, ‘Well, this is how it’s gonna be,’ and the tool-pusher, driller and OIM reluctantly agreed.”
Brown said the top Transocean man on the rig, the Offshore Installation Manager Jimmy Harrell, spoke in a low grumbling voice as they left the 11 a.m. meeting with BP.
Brown recalled Harrell saying, “Well, I guess that’s what we have those pinchers for.”
Brown said he assumed Harrell was talking about the shear rams on the blowout preventer, the devices that are supposed to slice through a drill pipe in a last-ditch effort to close off the well in case of an emergency. The implication was that the Transocean employees expected they might have to take emergency action because of BP’s push to remove the drilling mud.
But Ned Kohnke, a lawyer for Transocean, cross-examined Brown and questioned who else referred to shear rams as “pinchers,” and Brown said he couldn’t recall. Brown’s lawyer said he’d suffered a head injury in the accident and it affected his memory.
Brown also told the panel details of his harrowing ordeal during the explosions and evacuation of the rig.
“The power went out and we were put in the dark. Right on the end of that was the first explosion. Basically, it threw me up against the control panel and a hole opened underneath me and I fell into it. I was wondering what was happening. I was confused, hurt and dazed. I tried to get up and the second explosion happened. I fell back into the hole and the ceiling caved in on top of me at that point. That’s when I heard people screaming, ‘I got to get out of here.'”
Capt. Carl Smith’s testimony
Before Brown came to the witness stand at the hearings in Kenner, a ship captain with 15 years of drilling experience told the joint investigative panel that he doesn’t know why a rig would displace the protective column of heavy mud with light seawater before closing off a well.
“That’s something you learn at well-control school,” said Capt. Carl Smith, a former Coast Guard captain serving as an expert witness for the panel. “If you’re circulating fluid, you need to monitor how much is going in and how much is coming out. If you get more fluid out than in, it’s an indicator that something’s going on.”
Smith testified that there is an inherent conflict on any drilling rig between the company that’s leasing the rig and oilfield and the drilling operators. He said the “company man” represents a firm that leases the rig and often pays $500,000 a day to drill for the oil, so is concerned about speed and cost. The crew, meanwhile, is generally more concerned about safety and controlling the well, he said.
“That’s a natural point of conflict that I’ve seen,” Smith said. “Some (company men) have become outright adversaries, but they’re the people paying the bills. They control helicopters, the boats, what’s going on and off the rig. But I have to say, most of them are safety conscious.”