Better Late than Never?: Failed Blowout Preventer Was Long Overdue for Maintenance Overhaul


It turns out the 300-ton blowout preventer that failed to stop BP’s catastrophic oil spill was four years overdue for a preventive maintenance overhaul. In predictable fashion, company officials are still saying – by all reports with a straight face – that the neglect had nothing to do with its failure.

Businessweek is reporting on the bombshell revelation, noting that “…[the] blowout preventer’s blades failed to sever and seal the pipe from BP’s Macondo well during the April 2010 disaster that killed 11 rig workers, sank the vessel and spewed enough crude into the sea to fill two supertankers, according to a study commissioned by a joint U.S. Coast Guard-Interior Department panel.”

And into the B.S. Hall of Fame walks one Mr. Michael Fry, identified as “a Transocean manager who oversees subsea equipment used on all of the company’s Gulf of Mexico rigs.” It seems Mr. Fry told the government panel investigating the equipment that “…if it’s not found to be outside its operating tolerances, that piece of equipment stays in service…there’s not a reason to send it to the shop for a major overhaul if there’s nothing wrong with the equipment.”

So, using Fry’s nonsensical argument, there’s no reason to ever change or even check the oil in my car unless the engine starts operating “outside tolerances.” Right, like when the engine seizes? What Mr. Fry seems to be missing is that with a piece of equipment like a blowout preventer, you’re not going to know if there’s a problem until, say, 200 million gallons of crude spew into the Gulf of Mexico. I wonder if Mr. Frey thinks now is the right time to take the equipment in for that overhaul. You’d be hard-pressed to find an instance where the “better late than never” approach is less applicable.

On the news of the maintenance neglect, shares of the Houston-based company that manufactured the (poorly named) “blowout preventer,” Cameron International Corporation, fell $1.43, or 2.5 percent, to $55.30 at 4:15 p.m. in New York.

It’s unclear if stock fell because of potential liability over the spill or because Cameron is so profit-hungry it ignores its own maintenance guidelines. Either way, it’s yet another indication of just how much profit and production are valued over safety.

And let’s not forget that regulators share in the blame here. The lack of oversight is nothing short of appalling, and the Gulf Coast is now paying an enormous price. History has proven time and again that the oil industry cannot be trusted to police itself, but our government continues to look the other way. Until that permissive take on regulation changes dramatically, we can expect more of the same from BP and other “safety challenged” oil companies.

Here’s the Businessweek story:

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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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