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Aug 23, 2010 5:35 PM by Alison Haynes

Oil spill investigators focus on communication

HOUSTON (AP) - Federal investigators seeking the cause fr the
rig explosion that led to BP's massive Gulf oil spill focused
Monday on communication and chain of command, wondering at times
whether the key players knew enough to handle an emergency.
They also questioned whether a piece of failed equipment
designed to prevent the disaster was inspected on schedule. Details
about the so-called blowout preventer, which was supposed to lock
in place to prevent a spill in the case of an explosion, will be
important as investigators pull it from the seabed to analyze.
Testimony about the frantic moments after the spill, when a
distraught worker told the rig manager "she just blew, she just
blew," will also be key to understanding what happened April 20.
That's when the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, killing 11 workers
and subsequently spewing 206 million gallons of oil into the Gulf.
Two men who testified Monday were key to the successful
operation of the complex deepwater rig.stut Neil Cramond, who
oversees BP's marine operations in the Gulf, acknowledged he rarely
had contact with Paul Johnson, who managed the rig for owner
Transocean Ltd., which leased it to BP.
Cramond also testified that captains of rigs like the Deepwater
Horizon are ultimately responsible for crew safety and
environmental matters, but are not always involved in decisions
about how to deal with drilling operations and potential risks.
Members of the joint U.S. Coast Guard-Bureau of Energy
Management, Regulation and Enforcement investigative panel are
trying to figure out what caused the explosion and how regulation,
safety and oversight can be improved to prevent another such
catastrophe.
Investigators asked Johnson about whether maintenance of the
blowout preventer had been up to code. Johnson testified that a
September 2009 safety audit did not include a complete inspection
of the device, and so "I don't think it's lecomplete audit."
A few months later, however, as the rig was being moved to the
well, the blowout preventer was inspected. But investigators
questioned whether this was in line with the three- to five-year
timetable laid out in regulatory codes.
Meanwhile, Cramond's description of how responsibilities and
communication were divided among the parties responsible for the
sunken rig raised eyebrows at times among the investigators.
While questioning Cramond, a Coast Guard official wondered if
there was anyone who had a "big picture" of what was going on. He
said he was concerned the captain was responsible for keeping the
crew and vessel safe and preventing pollution, but had "little say
and awareness of what's going on in terms of risk."
"I believe what you've outlined is an accurate picture,"
Cramond said, noting such arrangements are standard in the oil and
gas industry.
He insisted, however, that records will show that on a number of
occasions he communicated concerns about safety problems to the
people who needed to know about them.
Asked if the Deepwater Horizon was properly manned at the time
of the explosion that killed 11 workers, he replied: "I have no
information that would say otherwise."
Johnson, whose responsibilMides included training and personnel,
was not on board the Deepwater Horizon when it exploded. He said he
only visited the rig three days each month and was not able to
monitor real-time data from it at his location on shore.
The blast knocked out communication between him and the captain
and offshore installation manager, he testified. Eventually, he
managed to talk to one of the rig workers who told him he had
insulation in his eyes and was struggling to see and hear.
"I asked what happened," Johnson testified. "He said, 'I
don't know Paul, she just blew, she just blew.' At that point I
know he was crying so I just shut the conversation down."
Another witness, Transocean performance operations manager Daun
Winslow, arrived on the rig the day of the blast for a routine site
visit. He was having some coffee and a cigarette below decks when
he heard a loud bang. He testified that the power was out, the
emergency genecetor didn't work, there was no water, the derrick
was consumed by flames and the walls were quickly crumbling around
the crew.
"I heard somebody yelling in the background that they were
jumping overboard," Winslow told the panel.
In March, barely a month before the accident, one of Cramond's
employees visited the Deepwater Horizon to ensure Transocean had
resolved safety violations found in a random audit a year earlier
that forced the rig to shut down for five days.
Cramond said 63 of 70 issues had been resolved, and the
remainder were minor problems that the company was given six months
to resolve.
Cramond, however, could answer almost no questions regarding the
drilling side of the operation, insisting his responsibility was
largely to determine whether the vessel was able to remain
seabound. He did, however, acknowledge that several systems and
pieces of equipment overlapped, saying a Transocean employee wasTultimately responsible for having a broader idea of what was
happening on the rig as a whole.
Asked if there was a process in place to ensure direct
communication between the different parties overseeing the rig's
operation, Cramond said: "I can't completely answer that
question."
In addition to operating the rig that exploded, BP owned a
majority interest in the ruptured undersea well. Anadarko Petroleum
held a minority interest in the well.
The hearings in Houston were scheduled to run through Friday.
They are the fourth set of hearings by the panel, which isn't
expected to issue any conclusions for months.
The temporary cap placed on the blown-out well in mid-July has
kept oil from spewing, and the final sealing should take place
after Labor Day.
Engineers are preparing to first remove the failed blowout
preventer and replace it with another. After that, they will
complete the drilling of a relief well,
hen will plug the
blown-out well for good by pumping mud and cement into the bottom.
There are three pieces of pipe from the well inside the blowout
preventer that engineers want to remove before attempting to
replace it, retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the government's
point man on the spill response, told reporters Monday.

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