U.S. DEFENDS PROBE OF FAILED BLOWOUT PREVENTER@
(For use by New York Times News Service clients.)@
By JENNIFER A. DLOUHY@
c. 2011 Hearst Newspapers@
WASHINGTON — A top Obama administration official on Friday rebutted claims that conflicts of interest have compromised the forensic examination of a critical piece of evidence in the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
At issue is the ongoing autopsy of the blowout preventer on Transocean's Deepwater Horizon drilling rig that failed to stop gushing oil at BP's doomed Macondo well last April 20.
Michael Bromwich, the head of the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, said the government is investigating a Transocean employee's involvement in the testing.
The internal probe is not yet complete, Bromwich said, but "based on the information gathered to date, we believe that the forensic examination of the BOP stack has not been compromised."
The government contracted the forensic analysis firm DNV Columbus Inc., to conduct testing to determine why the 60-foot-tall, 300-ton BOP failed to stop gushing oil by slashing through drill pipe and sealing off the well hole.
Since November, the forensic work has been guided by a government-formed technical working group with representatives from companies centrally involved in the spill, the Justice Department, the federal Chemical Safety Board and plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit. None of the representatives at the testing facility in New Orleans are allowed to have hands-on contact with the BOP.
But a Transocean employee and onetime subsea supervisor on the Deepwater Horizon rig, Jim Owen McWhorter, assisted in the retrieval of the BOP from the sea floor last September. Later, during testing, McWhorter provided technical assistance — mostly by identifying different flow lines, valves, circuits and other BOP components.
In a letter to Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., Bromwich faulted the DNV firm for violating conflict-of-interest provisions in its government contract by failing to get approval for McWhorter's role.
"DNV officials admit that they were at fault for not making the disclosure required under the contract and for allowing McWhorter to work on the BOP stack without written consent of the BOEMRE contracting officer," Bromwich said.
DNV did not respond to a request for comment.
Markey, the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee who raised concerns about McWhorter's involvement in a letter to Bromwich earlier this month, said the government dropped the ball.
Even if DNV didn't flag the possible conflict of interest, "it was the government officials who were ultimately responsible for who was and was not allowed access to the central piece of evidence in this disaster," Markey said.
Officials representing the joint ocean energy bureau and the Coast Guard — which is jointly investigating the spill — are on site during the testing. That joint probe was slated to be finished in March, but that deadline now appears unlikely because of delays in the BOP testing.
Bromwich rejected accusations that an employee from Cameron, the BOP manufacturer, has improperly participated in the forensic work by stressing that the worker was involved in connecting the device to a laptop with proprietary software for testing.
Bromwich promised "to do everything possible to preserve the integrity of the (joint) investigation and of the forensic analysis." He committed to step up the ocean energy bureau's presence at the test site and stressed that the agency would be examining video footage of the examination.
Bureau investigators have interviewed 11 DNV and government employees and studied other documents as part of their conflicts-of-interest probe.
Markey suggested it may be too late.
"The consequences of this situation may not be felt for months or years, after this issue is surely brought up in court as the companies responsible for this disaster litigate blame and the billions in fines that should be paid," Markey said. "The real losers from this lapse in judgment will likely be the American people."
(Jennifer A. Dlouhy can be reached at 202-263-6400 or at the e-mail address jdlouhy(at)hearstdc.com)