Alarm Was Disabled Before BP Blast


A critical alarm system that should have warned workers of danger aboard the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig had been disabled before the rig erupted into flames on April 20, the vessel’s chief electrician testified Friday at a federal hearing into the accident.

Michael Williams, an employee of Transocean Ltd., the company that owned the rig, said the general alarm system aboard the Deepwater Horizon had been “inhibited.” It was intended to automatically sound an alarm warning workers to move immediately out of harm’s way.

But Mr. Williams said the automatic system had been switched off because Transocean rig managers “did not want people woken up at 3 a.m. with false alarms.” Instead, the rig-wide alarm had to be triggered manually—and never sounded.

Many workers aboard the rig said that they had no advance notice there was a serious problem with the well until after a surge of natural gas set off the first of two massive explosions. Eleven workers died before the rig sank and unleashed the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history.

Mr. Williams, who filed a lawsuit against Transocean in federal court in New Orleans on April 29, said he voiced concerns about the alarm system to his supervisors. He was testifying Friday at a hearing in Kenner, La. which is being conducted by the U.S. Coast Guard and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement.

Transocean denies Mr. Williams’s claims, and witness testimony has been at times contradictory. The company has defended its safety practices, noting that 115 of the 126 people aboard the rig that night got off safely. A spokesman said the manual alarm “conforms to accepted maritime practices” and that “repeated false alarms increase risk and decrease rig safety.”

Offshore drilling experts agreed that rigs sometimes have certain alarms inhibited to prevent accidental triggering.

The claims by Mr. Williams are the latest indications that the Deepwater Horizon had problems with critical safety equipment both before and during the April 20 explosion.

Among the problems encountered by workers in their final minutes aboard the rig, according to hearing testimony: Emergency power didn’t come on; communications systems went down; systems meant to shut down the engines before they could spark an explosion didn’t do so; and the rig’s Emergency Disconnect System, which is supposed to shut down the well and disconnect the rig so it can float free, didn’t work.

In the weeks since the blowout, investigators have focused attention on decisions made before the disaster: the possibly risky design of the well, tests that were skipped or misinterpreted, and procedures that deviated from industry norms. Those decisions, which experts believe likely paved the way for the blowout, were made primarily by BP PLC, which owned the well.

But new evidence suggests that once the well began to flow out of control, vital safety systems failed that might have either prevented the disaster or lessened its severity. Those systems belonged to Transocean, which BP had hired to drill the well.

Transocean has pointed to documents that show the rig was making progress on maintenance in many areas. It cited a report in March found that rig workers had corrected 63 of 70 problems relating to the rig’s marine functions, such as the engines.

Other documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal show that the Deepwater Horizon had equipment problems long before the disaster, and that employees of both Transocean and BP raised concerns about maintenance aboard the rig.

Another example of critical system failure was emergency power. The rig was equipped with backup generators that are meant to kick on within seconds of a blackout, powering the rig’s thrusters, firefighting systems, and other key equipment.

In testimony earlier this week, Transocean employee Stephen Bertone, the rig’s chief engineer, described standing on the bridge the night of the disaster, desperately waiting for the emergency power to kick on.

When it didn’t, Mr. Bertone, Mr. Williams and another worker rushed toward the room that housed the standby generator. Mr. Bertone pulled the lever to restart the power. Nothing happened. He tried again, and again, with no success.

“I said that’s it,” Mr. Bertone told investigators. The three men ran back to the bridge. “I hollered out, ‘That’s it. Abandon ship. Let’s go,” Mr. Bertone said.

Documents suggest that Transocean knew about problems with the generators long before the blowout. As part of a September audit of the Deepwater Horizon conducted by BP, workers twice simulated a blackout to see if the emergency power came on as expected.

The first test was a failure, according to a copy of the audit reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. It took 14 minutes to restart the thrusters, compared with the target of one minute and 40 seconds.

The second test went better, taking under two minutes, but one engine failed to start for reasons that the report called “unclear.”

The 60-page audit, which has been discussed at the investigative hearings but has not been made public, identified hundreds of other equipment problems and complained of excessive overdue maintenance.

Transocean was aware of the audit and has pointed to follow-up reports from BP that found that many of the maintenance items were later resolved. In a March 29 email to leaders on the rig, a BP supervisor praised workers’ quick response to many of the issues.

In a statement, BP said it routinely conducts inspections of the rigs it hires and reports the results to its contractors. “We take the results of these audits seriously—and we expect our contractors to do likewise,” the company said.

Legal experts said that the alarm issue may turn out to be the most troublesome for Transocean as it defends itself from lawsuits filed by the families of the workers who lost their lives as well as by some of the survivors.

Two Democratic lawmakers Friday asked Transocean Ltd. for information about safety practices on the Deepwater Horizon. House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D., Calif.) and Rep. Bart Stupak (D., Mich.), the chairman of the committee’s investigations subcommittee, requested all documents related to safety on the rig by July 30.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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