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Judge says two BP contractors not at fault

25th March 2013   ·   0 Comments

By Susan Buchanan
Contributing Writer

In the fourth week of the 2010 Gulf spill trial, U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier in New Orleans dismissed all claims Wednesday against M-I LLC, BP’s drilling fluids contractor and a subsidiary of Houston-based Schlum­berger. The judge saw no evidence that M-I had made any decisions that led to the Macondo well blowout off Louisiana’s coast. He is assessing blame in the explosion that took eleven lives and caused the nation’s worst offshore oil spill.

Barbier also ruled out punitive damages Wednesday against Cameron International, the manufacturer of the rig’s blowout preventer, saying he’d heard nothing in the civil trial to indicate gross negligence or willful misconduct by that Houston-based company. Two M-I employees died in the April 20, 2010 Macondo blast but no Cameron staff were on the rig then.

Judge Barbier said Wednesday that he was not ready to rule on requests from BP, Transocean and Halliburton that gross negligence and other claims against them be dismissed in the trial that began on Feb. 25.

Last week, Macondo leaseholder and well operator BP, rig owner Transocean and cement contractor Halliburton all took some heat in the trial. On Thursday, attorneys for BP and the state of Alabama said they’ll seek sanctions against Halliburton for withholding cement samples from the Kodiak well that may have be used at the Macondo site. Sanctions could affect how Halliburton defends itself in court.

On March 13, Halliburton attorney Don Godwin said the company discovered Kodiak cement samples that day at its Broussard, La. lab. Those samples probably should have been turned over to the feds under a court order in late April 2010.

Last Tuesday, Timothy Quirk, Halliburton’s Broussard lab manager from 2008 to mid-2012, testified that he isolated Macondo cement lab samples on April 30, 2010 as instructed. But he later removed Kodiak well samples from that group and placed them on a warehouse shelf.

Quirk said “I gathered all the Transocean rig samples,” at the request of Tony Angelle, a Halliburton manager. “And when I gave him a list of everything I’d inventoried, he said we just need to secure the Macondo well samples.” Quirk listed the Macondo samples and safeguarded them in a locker at the lab. “Everything else I put back into the storage area in our warehouse” in Broussard, he said.

BP and its contractors drilled the Kodiak in 2008, and leftover materials from it were later used at the Macondo site. Kodiak cement at the Broussard lab was the same blend as the material used on the Deepwater Horizon on April 17.

Quirk also said Tuesday that he threw away handwritten notes on cement stability tests related to the Macondo well after reporting them by phone to Halliburton colleague Ronnie Faul in May 2010. And Quirk discarded the pieces of cement he had tested. The tests were done on off-the-shelf, lab stock, he said.

In testimony last week on other matters, petroleum engineer Calvin Barnhill, a Transocean expert witness, said Monday “there are three basic, $64 billion questions in this case. Number one, why was the negative pressure test deemed a success?” That test, done on April 20, 2010 to determine whether cementing had sealed any leaks in the Macondo well, was interpreted to show the procedure was successful. But the test was inconclusive, he said. “Number two, why wasn’t the the operation stopped at around 9:00 pm and the test repeated?,” he asked. “And why wasn’t the well shut in at 9:32 or 9:33 pm when there was an anomaly?”

Without a successful pressure test, “there was a significant question here as to whether the operation should go forward,” Barnhill said. When asked who on the rig was authorized to decide if the pressure test had passed, he said “the ultimate authority would have rested with BP. They would have made the call whether to accept or reject the test and move forward.”

On Tuesday morning, Steve Newman, Transocean president and chief executive officer, testified and said “our people failed to follow through on the pressure anomaly that existed on the drill pipe. They accepted BP’s assessment that the pressure test had been successful and they accepted BP’s instruction to continue on with the displacement of the well.”

In questioning about whether Transocean’s management had contributed to the blowout, Newman said “no, we have not identified any failures within the responsibility of management.”

Transocean engaged Lloyd’s Register Group, a maritime and risk-management organization, to study five of its drilling rigs, including the Deepwater Horizon, in September 2009 following four deaths on four of its rigs over 92 days. In a subsequent July 2010 report, Lloyd’s pointed to “a fundamental lack of hazard awareness” within Transocean’s North America division.

In testimony Monday, marine safety expert Geoff Webster, the plaintiffs’ expert witness on the Deepwater Horizon’s seaworthiness, said rig audits showed delayed maintenance had been a growing problem. The audits “clearly show that there were not enough people on board, there was not enough equipment for spares and that the rig was going downhill,” he said.

Maintenance was behind on everything from pumps and alarms to lifeboats, Webster said. The rig’s blowout preventer hadn’t been recertified after nine years though certification was required every five years by the federal Mineral Management Service and by Cameron, the BOP’s manufacturer.

When asked how he’d characterize the vessel’s maintenance history, Webster said “I would have to say this is reckless neglect of the vessel.” He also said “this rig should have gone to a shipyard, at which time all these items could have been taken care of. The vessel had been running for nine years without any major overhaul or any dry dock period.”

Webster was asked about a disparaging comment from a Transocean employee in Lloyd’s analysis of the company’s North American rigs. The employee had said “run it, break it, fix it. That’s how they work.”

Those remarks indicated Transocean was more interested in production than safety, Webster said. “When the rig is idle, it’s not making money,” he explained. “When the rig is in dry dock, it’s not making money. So they try to keep it out there as long as they can. They were running it, things were breaking and they were fixing it the best they could.”

In another development, federal prosecutors in New Orleans filed an indictment Wednesday against former BP engineer and Texas resident Kurt Mix, alleging that he deleted more than 50 phone voice mails about his company’s response to the 2010 spill. Last spring, he was charged with deleting text messages related to the spill.

Judge Barbier’s Poydras St. trial, which is open to the public, will continue into late May—barring a settlement before then.

This article originally published in the March 25, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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