For Some Investigators, BP Oil Spill Is Just Beginning

It's been nearly eight months since the Deepwater Horizon tragedy killed 11 workers and spilled millions of gallons of oil in the Gulf of Mexico. Since April, federal agencies have launched a series of separate investigations and this week the U.S. Chemical Safety Board held its first round of public hearings. Host Scott Simon talks with NPR's Jeff Brady about the continuing investigations into the causes of the BP oil spill.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

It's been nearly eight months since the Deepwater Horizon tragedy killed 11 workers and spilled millions of gallons of oil in the Gulf of Mexico. Since April, federal agencies have launched a series of separate investigations. This week, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board held its first round of public hearings.

NPR's Jeff Brady is here to help us sort through the various panels and their findings so far. And Jeff, thanks for being with us.

JEFF BRADY: My pleasure.

SIMON: How many investigations are there again?

BRADY: If you count just sort of those big government investigations, then there are five of them underway right now. They're all separate from each other but they're pretty much examining the same question of what happened and how can it prevented in the future.

I think most of us have heard of the highest profile investigation - that's the president's spill commission. And their report is due out next month. There is a joint investigation by the Coast Guard and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. They're going to have a report right around the one-year anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon accident. And the National Academy of Engineering, they put out an interim report here a couple of months back that talked about some of the signs that the crew on the Deepwater Horizon missed. They're going to have a final report out in June.

And then you mentioned the Chemical Safety Board - very independent. They don't actually have a deadline, so we don't know when that report will come out. And then the Department of Justice, of course, is investigating to determine any sort of legal action that that agency might take.

SIMON: There are so many investigations because you have various agencies that feel they have to essentially get on the boards with their own analysis - or do the multiplicity of investigations bring out more information and result in changes?

BRADY: Each time one of these agencies saw what the others were doing and they thought, well, I can bring something more to this, they launched their own investigation. So now we're left with five different investigations.

I think the interesting question right now is - when we get into next summer and a lot of these folks have released their final reports - are these investigations going to be reaching similar conclusions? Because if they're not, then we're going to have a whole new set of questions to answer here.

SIMON: Let me follow up on DOJ, because they filed a civil lawsuit against BP and some of the other companies involved this week. What about the possibility of criminal charges?

BRADY: You know, I wouldn't be surprised if there were criminal charges filed. The civil lawsuit that you just mentioned - it's based on the government's belief that BP and the rig operator, Transocean, and the other companies involved took shortcuts on safety and that led to the accident. In the filing here this last week, they said that the companies didn't use proper equipment in drilling that exploratory well, the crew didn't pay enough attention to the warning signs that were on the rig and down below underwater.

And Attorney General Holder specifically said in announcing that civil suit that this was only the first step that his department was taking, that the criminal investigation is ongoing. And of course this administration has sent pretty strong messages all along that they're going to hold these companies accountable.

SIMON: And of course you mentioned the president's oil spill commission report coming out in a few weeks. But then they've already kind of released a few findings, haven't they?

BRADY: In October there was a staff report specifically critical of Halliburton's cementing job. This past week there was another staff report talking about these sand barriers that the local politicians wanted built to sort of stop that oil as it would come ashore to Louisiana. And the commission staff put out a working paper saying that those barriers were pretty much ineffective.

And Governor Jindal actually called the assessment a partisan assessment and that really gets to another issue with this president's spill commission, that folks within the oil industry really feel like they're not represented on that panel, that it's heavily weighted in favor of environmentalists.

SIMON: And has the tragedy that began the spill at the Deepwater Horizon brought about a substantial change in safety standards?

BRADY: The regulators have pretty much rewritten their rules. They've completely overhauled their program. Huge changes have taken place over the last eight months. That's really confused the industry. I think the real issue that we have here is that this is an industry that's used to having a pretty close relationship with its regulators. The previous administration, a lot of those folks came out of the oil industry.

And while these folks feel like they're being specifically targeted, I think it's really more of an issue of them becoming accustomed to having a thorough and vigorous regulator once again.

SIMON: NPR's Jeff Brady, thanks so much.

BRADY: Thank you.

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