MMS investigations of oil-rig accidents have history of inconsistency


A year and a day before BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, crew members on a neighboring oil rig found themselves bracing for their own potential disaster.

A dangerous gas bubble surged up a well pipe, and the blowout preventers hadn’t worked. The crew reported hearing a “deafening roar” as fluids shot up, knocking over huge metal equipment on the deck. Alarms sounded. Some workers ran to lifeboats, while others stayed behind to control the well.

The accident on the rig, leased by Louisiana Land Oil and Gas (LLOG), was one of the 12,087 oil-related incidents in the gulf reported over the past five years to the federal Minerals Management Service — the now-revamped agency investigating the BP oil spill. The number of accidents, spills and deaths regularly occurring in the region has far surpassed the agency’s ability to investigate them.

Until now, 60 inspectors were tasked with investigating all types of incidents. Between 2006 and 2009, those included 30 worker deaths, 1,298 injuries, 514 fires and 23 blowouts that left wells out of control. They conducted 378 investigations in the gulf in roughly the same time period, with 21 considered worthy of more rigorous and extended scrutiny by a panel.

As federal inspectors work to dissect the underlying causes of the BP accident — an issue to be probed this week in a new round of joint panel hearings in Kenner, La. — The Washington Post reviewed several dozen serious MMS investigations in recent years to assess how they were conducted and found large variations in aggressiveness and outcome.

In some cases, investigators ran their own tests, tracked down witnesses and did complicated technical calculations. In others, they relied heavily on information and witness interviews provided by companies. Once their findings were forwarded to agency officials for review, many probes resulted in small fines or none at all.

MMS levied financial penalties 154 times in the past five years, agency officials testified last month. Although the agency now may assess fines of up to $35,000 per day, in five years it collected only $8.5 million. Its largest fine between 2000 and 2009 was $697,500, according to an MMS Web site.

It took 11 months for MMS to finalize its report in the LLOG case, and along the way it sometimes accepted the accounts of company officials without probing more deeply, the report shows.

Investigators asked to see a safety valve provided by a subcontractor, Halliburton Corp. When Halliburton told investigators the device was under repair and couldn’t be examined, an inspector accepted the company’s assertions and data. Kendra Barkoff, an Interior Department spokeswoman, said Saturday that the valve played no role in the accident.

The inquiry concluded that no rules had been broken, no fines were warranted, and the agency’s response should be to alert the industry to potential risks. Barkoff noted that “some accidents are just that: accidents that involve no wrongdoing or criminal or negligent behavior.”

The team looking into that case was led by Frank Patton, a veteran investigator also responsible for monitoring the Deepwater Horizon rig. In recent weeks, Patton has testified that he approved a BP drilling plan that other oil companies and drilling experts have said was deeply flawed.

The supervisor who approved the LLOG report was J. David Dykes, co-chairman of the joint panel with the Coast Guard that on Monday begins its second round of hearings into the BP blowout. Dykes referred questions to Barkoff, who also answered for Patton. “Frank Patton and David Dykes . . . are committed to ensuring the safety of offshore energy operation,” Barkoff said.

In an interview, Michael Bromwich, director of the MMS successor agency, the Bureau of Ocean Energy, declined to look back on specific MMS investigations but said he believes performance will improve with the addition of up to 200 new inspectors in coming years. He said there are many dedicated and hardworking inspectors examining the industry.

“I’ve certainly heard and read the agency wasn’t aggressive in the past,” he said. “And given the revenues coming into the companies, the fines seem like a paltry amount. But going forward, when we find violations we will really impose sanctions that fit those violations.”

Some observers, like Christopher Jones of Baton Rouge, want assurances that the joint panel looking into the BP accident will hold industry accountable. Jones, whose 28-year-old brother, Gordon, was among the 11 who died in the Deepwater Horizon explosion, said the oil companies should not be left to “brush aside their inspections and continue doing whatever they want to do.”

Some panel investigations reflect rigorous scrutiny. They show accident inspectors analyzing complicated calculations, including gas pressure, fluid chemical compositions and equipment strength.

Even when inspectors documented long-standing problems, sometimes the companies were not fined, the Post review found. Even the toughest fines appeared to have little impact. Dan Donovan, a spokesman for Dominion Exploration & Production, said he could find no evidence of a $675,500 fine cited against the company on an MMS Web site and questioned its accuracy.

“That’s the largest fine? That’s unbelievable,” Donovan said.

MMS focused on delinquent paperwork in 2007 after chronicling a leaking pipeline near a Stone Energy platform that had needed attention for six months. The company at first denied responsibility when five small oil slicks showed up near its production platform. A few days later, a larger oil slick, 30 miles long and six miles wide, was reported near the Stone platform.

When the larger spill surfaced and an MMS inspector visited the platform, “the Operator initially questioned the possibility” that it was responsible, the report said. Two tests that day requested by MMS verified that the Stone pipe was leaking. In reviewing Stone’s paperwork, MMS discovered that required corrosion tests had not been performed for some time. Divers who went down to inspect the pipes found four holes. At the end of its investigation, the MMS team wrote that the corroded pipes had been vulnerable for “at least six months.” It did not recommend a fine, penalty or industry warning. Instead, it suggested the agency “reanalyze its procedures” to track delinquent reports. Stone spokesman Tim O’Leary said the company believed the pipeline damage “was not caused by corrosion but by mechanical damage, such as an anchor dragging over the pipeline during Hurricane Katrina.”

In March 2000, Dykes was called upon to help investigate one of his former employers, Burlington Resources. A crane operator was seriously injured when his crane collapsed while carrying too much load at an unsafe angle.

Working at night and in heavy winds, the Burlington rig workers tried to move a heavy tank from a boat onto the rig deck. The crane operator radioed the boat master to reposition, and the master explained the weather conditions were making the task difficult. A supervisor ordered work to proceed anyway. After lifting the tank six feet, the crane snapped in four places. Parts tumbled — with the operator — onto the boat. Co-workers pulled him from the wreckage before the rest of the crane toppled.

Dykes’s team found that Burlington “failed to ensure that daily crane inspections were performed . . . failed to ensure that all onside supervisors adhere to [safety] guidelines” and learned little from a similar 1996 crane failure on one of its platforms.

The team cited no violations, and no fines were imposed. The investigators recommended a safety alert instead and urged MMS to audit outdated cranes.

While the safety of oil-rig work has improved over the years, death and injury remain ever-present threats. In July 2006, for instance, a crew member of the vessel Lorelay stood in the “pinch point” between two giant pipe segments. As he worked, one of the pipes moved along a conveyor and pinned him from behind, crushing him.

MMS investigators tried to assess what set the second pipe in motion. They visited the scene the next day, interviewed some of the crew, gathered documents and reviewed the findings of an investigation by the ship owner.

Two workers were nearby at the time of the incident but said they saw nothing. Closed-circuit cameras also monitored the area, but the investigators reported that the cameras did not work on the day of the accident.

The panel’s findings were inconclusive. “The fatality was caused by the inside conveyor system becoming inadvertently energized,” it noted, “causing uncontrolled pipe movement.”

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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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