Associated Press Modified: January 28, 2011 at 4:26 pm •  Published: January 28, 2011


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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.

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