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Aug 6, 2010 9:31 PM by Alison Haynes

Spill investigators want to find undersea evidence

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Now that BP appears to have vanquished its
ruptured well, authorities are turning their attention to gathering
evidence from what could amount to a crime scene at the bottom of
the sea.
The wreckage - including the failed blowout preventer and the
blackened, twisted remnants of the drilling platform - may be
Exhibit A in the effort to establish who is responsible for the
biggest peacetime oil spill in history. And the very companies
under investigation will be in charge of recovering the evidence.
Hundreds of investigators can't wait to get their hands on
evidence. The FBI is conducting a criminal investigation, the Coast
Guard is seeking the cause of the blast, and lawyers are pursuing
millions of dollars in damages for the families of the 11 workers
killed, the dozens injured and the thousands whose livelihoods have
been damaged.
"The items at the bottom of the sea are a big deal for
everybody," said Stephen Herman, a New Orleans lawyer for injured
rig workers and others.
BP will surely want a look at the items, particularly if it
tries to shift responsibility for the disaster onto other
companies, such as Transocean, which owned the oil platform,
Halliburton, which supplied the crew that was cementing the well,
and Cameron International, maker of the blowout preventer.
BP and Transocean - which could face heavy penalties if found to
be at fault - have said they will raise some of the wreckage if it
can be done without doing more damage to the oil well. That would
give the two companies responsibility for gathering up the very
evidence that could be used against them.
But the federal government has said it simply doesn't have the
know-how and the deep-sea equipment that the drilling industry has.
And it said the operation will be closely supervised by the Coast
Guard.
Lawyers will be watching, too, to make sure the companies don't
do anything untoward, said Brent Coon, an attorney for one of the
thousands of plaintiffs seeking damages.
"I think they would do something in front of their own mother
if they could," Coon said. "But the reality is there are a lot of
eyes watching them and a lot of smart scientists who would know if
they did anything they weren't supposed to."
The crisis in the Gulf appeared to be drawing to a close this
week when BP plugged up the top of the blown-out well with mud and
then sealed it with cement. BP Senior Vice President Kent Wells
said crews plan to resume drilling Sunday night on a relief well
more than two miles below the seafloor that will be used to inject
mud and cement just above the source of the oil, thereby sealing
off the well from the bottom, too. The two wells should hook up
between Aug. 13 and Aug. 15, Wells said.
In other developments Friday, BP said it might drill again
someday into the same undersea reservoir of oil, which is still
believed to hold nearly $4 billion worth of crude. That prospect is
unlikely to sit well with Gulf Coast residents furious at the oil
giant.
"There's lots of oil and gas here," Chief Operating Officer
Doug Suttles said. "We're going to have to think about what to do
with that at some point."
Also Friday, BP said Suttles - who has spent more than three
months managing BP's response efforts on the Gulf - is returning to
his day job in Houston. Mike Utsler, a vice president who has been
running BP's command post in Houma, La., since April, will replace
him.
Willie Davis, a 41-year-old harbormaster in Pass Christian,
Miss., said he fears his area will be forgotten if BP pulls out too
soon. "I'm losing trust in the whole system," he said. "If they
don't get up off their behinds and do something now, it's going to
be years before we're back whole again."
Utsler told Gulf residents not to worry, saying the spill's
effects are "a challenge that we continue to recognize with more
than 20,000-plus people continuing to work."
Investigations of the disaster began immediately after the rig
blew up on April 20. The government alone is conducting about a
dozen, including several congressional investigations, criminal and
civil probes by the Justice Department, and an examination by an
expert panel convened by President Barack Obama.
Officials want to find out not only the cause of the explosion,
but also how oil drilling a mile or more below the surface can be
made safer.
A final outcome could be years away, particularly if someone is
charged with a crime, said David Uhlmann, former chief of the
Justice Department's environmental crimes team.
"Normally an investigation of a case this complicated would
take two to three years. This is not a normal case," he said.
"This is the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. The
timetable will be accelerated dramatically, but it still will not
be resolved before 2011."
Any items brought up from the seafloor will be photographed and
preserved. Investigators for the government, BP and others who have
a stake in the case will try to come up with testing procedures
acceptable to all sides.
The blowout preventer will probably make it to the surface. The
300-ton mechanism is designed to be placed on a well and brought
back to the surface for reuse. It was supposed to be the final line
of defense against a catastrophic spill, but BP documents obtained
by a congressional committee showed the device had a significant
hydraulic leak and a dead or low battery.
"That piece of equipment will tell us whether the blowout
preventer had a design defect or whether it was mechanical or human
error that caused this disaster," Herman said.
The blowout preventer is still attached to the broken wellhead
but will be replaced as part of the effort to permanently secure
the well, said retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who is
overseeing the spill response for the government.
"In some ways it's the smoking gun," said Eric Smith,
associate director of the Tulane Energy Institute. "It's rich
evidence. It still won't tell you exactly what happened at the
bottom of the well ... but the fact is it didn't work - and
everybody wants to know why."
Coon said the rig might contain "black boxes" that recorded
critical data and control panels that could be removed to re-create
conditions before the explosion.
Transocean has asked the government for permission to test the
blowout preventer and hopes to see it raised it in September,
company President Steven Newman said.
Getting to the exploded rig itself might be harder. It would be
impractical to raise the entire structure because of its immensity,
twice the size of a football field, Coast Guard Rear Adm. Paul
Zukunft said. He would not say whether it would be possible to cut
off vital pieces of the structure.

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