Turf war threatens integrity of BP oil spill investigation


Early in the summer, I was in southern Louisiana, speaking with a Houston attorney who represented business owners in the area.

We compared BP’s Gulf disaster with the 2005 explosion at its Texas City refinery, and we discussed the investigations that followed it.

One in particular stood out. The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board conducted the most thorough and independent examination of the accident, which killed 15 people and injured more than 170.

The CSB’s handling of the Texas City case has become a model for how industrial accidents should be examined. It outlined the fatal consequences that flowed from accounting decisions at BP’s headquarters to the operating failures on the refinery grounds.

What agency, the lawyer asked, is going to fill that role in the case of BP’s offshore disaster in the Gulf of Mexico? A few weeks later, we got our answer. Members of Congress asked the CSB to investigate the cause of the Deepwater Horizon accident, even though offshore rigs aren’t necessarily part of its purview.

The CSB investigates industrial accidents in much the way the National Transportation Safety Board investigates airplane crashes. It has no regulatory responsibility, which means it’s in the best position to offer an impartial assessment of what went wrong.

The joint investigative team from the U.S. Coast Guard and the Interior Department, though, has bristled at the CSB’s involvement.

The latest dispute centers on the blowout preventer, the five-story structure that failed to shut in the well after the Deepwater Horizon’s crew lost control of it.

The joint team, known as the JIT, has control of this key piece of evidence, and the CSB claims it is being stonewalled in its efforts to examine it.

The JIT has hired a Norwegian consulting firm to run tests on the blowout preventer in an attempt to understand why it failed to seal the well. At first, the JIT said it only had five seats available to monitor the tests — for BP; rig owner Transocean; Cameron International, the device’s manufacturer; the Justice Department; and lawyers for plaintiffs suing BP.

It later agreed to add a sixth seat for the CSB, but said the CSB’s chosen expert would have to be approved by the JIT.

The CSB bristles at the idea that its investigation should be subservient to any of the others, and said the independence of its inquiry would be compromised if it had to seek approval for its experts. It also said it may want to send its own investigators in to monitor some of the tests, some of which can be done only once.

The two sides have been swapping compromise proposals, but there has been no resolution. CSB Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso said the board still has “serious concerns” with the JIT’s handling of the test procedures.

At the same time, Transocean has raised concerns that the blowout preventer could be damaged by corrosion if the tests aren’t completed quickly.

The JIT has said it intends to move forward with the tests, despite the CSB’s objections, and the CSB has threatened to get a court order if necessary to preserve the independence of its investigation.

It may sound like a petty bureaucratic squabble, but there is more to it than that.

The Interior Department, like the companies involved in the accident, has a vested interest in the investigation’s outcome.

The Deepwater Horizon accident has cast a harsh light on the Interior Department’s lax regulation of offshore drilling.

Interested parties have had control of the key evidence and information of this spill since the moment the Horizon exploded.

The public and the families of the 11 men who died aboard the rig deserve an independent investigation to get the answers of what went wrong.

The Interior Department needs to stop stonewalling and let the CSB do its job.

Add comment

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

Follow Us

© Stuart H Smith, LLC
Share This