Panel: Defects May Have Contributed To Oil Spill

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The investigation into the Gulf oil spill by a House subcommittee reveals that the well failed an important test just 20 hours before the explosion, and that there were at least four significant problems with a key safety device that prevented it from working properly after the explosion.


One of the prime suspects in the Gulf spill, a safety device called the blowout preventer, had multiple defects, everything from leaky hydraulics to a dead battery. Thats according to the report of a House investigative subcommittee. And at a hearing today, oil company executives had little to say in response.

NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY: The hearing gives the most complete picture yet of the blowout preventer and its actual condition. Subcommittee chairman Bart Stupak, a Michigan Democrat, summed up what the device meant for the drilling rig Deepwater Horizon.

Representative BART STUPAK (Democrat, Michigan): The safety of its entire operations rested on the performance of a leaking, modified, defective blowout preventer.

OVERBY: One of the problems cited by the committee was already well-known: The blowout preventer's blind-shear ram, the shear thats supposed to cut through the pipe and crimp it, can't actually cut all the way through if certain sections of drill pipe are in the way.

And the other problems, the new ones: A loose hydraulic fitting was letting fluid leak out. The blowout preventer had been modified; one of the modifications effectively crippled one of the five components in the blowout preventer. A piece of test equipment had been substituted for a ram that couldve helped to stanch the flow of oil. And there weren't good records of the modifications, so after the blowout, engineers couldnt figure out why robots weren't able to make the undersea control panel work right.

And another control panel didnt work because it had a dead battery. Stupak said that disabled an emergency backup called a Dead Man Switch. Subcommittee members pressed executives from BP, which leased the rig, from Transocean, which owned it, and from Halliburton, which did cement work on the well.

Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky repeatedly asked the Transocean CEO, Steve Newman, if anyone made a mistake regarding the condition of the blowout preventer. Newman finally admitted...

Mr. STEVE NEWMAN (CEO, Transocean): It would be a mistake to rely on that in a well control situation, yes.

OVERBY: The blowout preventer isnt the only subject of interest to the congressional investigators and the probe is continuing.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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