Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Engineer accuses BP of ignoring damaged oil well safety gear

Times Online

INN World Report

The critical piece of safety equipment that failed to shut down the oil well after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded last month was damaged before the accident, it emerged yesterday.

According to a survivor’s account that could prove devastating to BP as it struggles to stop millions of gallons of oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico, the safety device — known as a blowout preventer — was punctured in the weeks before the blast but nothing was done to fix it.

Mike Williams, the rig’s chief electronics technician, also said that in the lead-up to the disaster BP officials, concerned that the project was behind schedule and costing the company $1 million (£680,000) a day, ordered a faster pace of drilling.

Since the rig exploded on April 20, BP has been asked repeatedly why the blowout preventer, designed to seal off a well in the event of an explosion, failed to activate. That failure has led to crude oil pouring into the Gulf for a month, a spillage set to eclipse the 1989 Exxon Valdez accident.

Mr Williams said that shortly before the explosion workers were conducting a test on the blowout preventer. While it was shut a crewman accidentally nudged a joystick, which sent 15ft of the oil pipe through the closed device, whose key component is a rubber gasket that can close tightly around the well head, sealing it off in the event of an explosion.

Mr Williams added that a crewman “discovered chunks of rubber in the drilling fluid”. He thought that it was important enough to bring them into the driller shack. “I recall asking the supervisor if this was out of the ordinary. And he says, ‘Oh, it’s no big deal’. I thought, how can it not be a big deal? Chunks of our seal is now missing,” Mr Williams told 60 Minutes on CBS.

He added that one of the two control pods that operate the blowout preventer had lost some of its function weeks before the explosion, and the batteries on the device were weak. With the schedule slipping, Mr Williams said that a BP manager ordered a quicker pace. The faster drilling had caused the bottom of the well to split open, swallowing tools. “There’s always pressure [on the crew], but yes, the pressure was increased,” he said.

BP said that it was now capturing about a fifth of the oil gushing from the ruptured well after a suction tube had been inserted into the well riser pipe on the ocean floor. The Obama Administration said that it was unimpressed. In a letter to BP, Janet Napolitano, the Homeland Security Secretary, and Ken Salazar, the Interior Secretary, said that the insert pipe “is not a solution to the problem and it is not yet clear how successful it will be”.

Edward Markey, Democrat chairman of the House Sub-Committee on Energy and the Environment, said BP had failed to respond to repeated requests for information about the scale of the spill. Officials said that the White House would set up a presidential commission to investigate the disaster.

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