Federal government sues Transocean for access to Deepwater Horizon documents


HOUSTON – The Department of Justice has filed a civil suit against drilling giant Transocean, saying the firm refuses to turn over documents subpoenaed as part of an investigation into the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig.

The suit, filed in a New Orleans federal court, says Transocean is not releasing documents related to safety audits on its rigs and safety training for particular workers that were requested by the joint U.S. Coast Guard-Interior Department panel investigating the accident.

The government claims the information will help investigators “identify gaps in existing laws” that could help prevent future accidents here and abroad.

”Although Transocean has produced some documents in response to portions of the subpoena, as to two requests at issue here, Transocean objected and produced no documents,” said Jim Letten, U.S. Attorney for New Orleans, in the court filings.

In a Nov. 4 letter responding to the subpoena, Transocean said the requests are “overly broad, unduly burdensome, irrelevant, not reasonably calculated to lead to admissible evidence in this proceeding, and outside the scope of the Joint Investigation’s charge.”

A Transocean spokesman said the company wouldn’t comment beyond the letter until it has reviewed the government’s filings further.

Transocean’s Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on April 20 when the well it was drilling for BP blew out. Eleven workers died and the well leaked an estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil before it was finally capped in July.

The Justice Department is conducting a criminal investigation but the first federal look at the incident began within weeks of the blowout with joint hearings by the Coast Guard and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement – the division of the Interior Department formerly called the Minerals Management Service.

The panel has held hearings in New Orleans and Houston, with the next set for Dec. 7 to 9 in Houston.

The panel subpoenaed several safety audits of Transocean rigs, including an internal study the company conducted on the 11 rigs it had operating in the Gulf of Mexico at the time of the incident.

Investigators also want Transocean to provide copies of seven additional external safety audits of the contractor’s drilling fleet conducted as far back as 1998.

Another federal agency investigating the accident, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, has complained about Transocean workers refusing to answer its subpoenas to sit for interviews.

Don Holmstrom, the CSB’s lead investigator, told the Houston Chronicle that only one of eight Transocean employees subpoenaed by the CSB has been interviewed under oath. Three have refused to cooperate with the agency’s investigation and others have been delayed for a variety of reasons.

Transocean and lawyers for some of the workers have said they don’t believe the CSB has jurisdiction to investigate the accident.

Neither the joint Coast Guard/Interior panel nor the CSB can bring criminal charges against companies or individuals.

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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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