Feds push back in flap over blowout preventer test


Federal investigators are pushing back against criticism they aren’t doing enough to keep companies involved in the Gulf of Mexico oil spill away from any hands-on role in the forensic analysis of a key piece of equipment that failed to keep crude from entering the sea.

Rep. Edward J. Markey sent a letter Friday to the director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement detailing what he said are new concerns about conflicts of interest in the blowout preventer testing.

Markey’s letter said a Cameron International employee was allowed to operate components of the blowout preventer during the same week that an ocean energy bureau spokeswoman insisted company representatives are not involved in testing the 300-ton device. Markey’s concerns are similar to those expressed recently by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board.

However, the same spokeswoman, Melissa Schwartz, issued a statement Saturday saying the Cameron worker, Ray Fain, wasn’t doing testing of the blowout preventer, but rather was involved in flushing the pods to keep them from eroding, a procedure that is being done periodically and requires proprietary Cameron computer equipment and a technician to operate.

Schwartz said the parties involved in the testing agreed months ago, in consultation with a federal judge, that the procedure was necessary and may need to be conducted every few months.

Representatives for Cameron, BP PLC, Transocean Ltd., the Justice Department and lawyers for plaintiffs in lawsuits over the disaster have been allowed to monitor the examination of the blowout preventer at a NASA facility in New Orleans since testing began Nov. 16.

A Norwegian firm was hired to do the testing under the supervision of a federal investigation team.

But the safety board, and now Markey, D-Mass., said employees from Transocean and Cameron have been getting preferential and sometimes hands-on access to the blowout preventer. That would pose a conflict of interest because Transocean was responsible for maintaining the blowout preventer before the disaster and Cameron made the device.

The board has said it wants the testing halted until Transocean and Cameron officials are removed from any hands-on role in the examination. Markey said in his letter that he wants the same thing, as well as an investigation of the conduct of any federal investigators or officials who allowed Cameron and Transocean employees improper access to the blowout preventer.

Following the safety board complaints, Transocean denied it had acted improperly. It also has suggested that the safety board doesn’t have jurisdiction to participate in the investigation. A Cameron spokesman did not respond to a Saturday request for comment.

Following the April 20, 2010, rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, the blowout preventer used with BP’s well failed to do its job: stopping the flow of oil to the sea. Eleven workers were killed in the blast, and some 200 million gallons of oil were released by BP’s undersea well, according to government estimates that BP disputes.

The device was raised from the seafloor on Sept. 4, and it sat at the NASA facility for two months before testing began.

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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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