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Hearing: Rig Manager Contradicts Chief Mechanic

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A top Transocean drilling manager denies he was involved in a heated argument with a BP manager aboard the Deepwater Horizon hours before it exploded in the Gulf last month. The manager was testifying before a board of federal investigators in New Orleans on Thursday.


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

An update now, on the federal investigation into the causes of last month's oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. At a hearing yesterday in Louisiana, a top manager from the Deepwater Horizon rig said there was no argument between him and a BP manager over how to shut down the oil well. He contradicted earlier testimony that there was a big disagreement on the rig, only hours before it exploded. NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER: Investigators from the Coast Guard and the Minerals Management Service are trying to piece together the events of April 20th. But it isn't easy when one witness, this week, described a heated argument between two managers during a meeting on the rig and then the key manager involved shows up yesterday and tells the board this...

Mr. JIMMY HARRELL (Manager, Deepwater Horizon): I don't remember about no heated debate.

FESSLER: That's Jimmy Harrell. He ran the drilling operation for Transocean, the company that leased the rig to oil giant BP. Herald said his only concern was that the BP manager's plan didn't call for testing the pressure in the well before removing drilling mud from the drilled pipe.

Mr. HARRELL: It wasn't an argument or nothing. I did ask a few of them to stay back to make sure that we discussed the negative tests and make sure it was done prior to displacing with seawater.

FESSLER: And, in fact, he said BP did do the tests, not once, but twice. Harrell also insisted he had no concerns about safety on the rig and that he felt no pressure to complete the job, even though BP was behind schedule in shutting down the well. Board member Jason Mathews noted that the oil company had to pay more than a half million dollars a day to lease the rig and he asked, wasn't that ever a concern.

Mr. JASON MATHEWS (Board member, Mineral Management Service): Is there any time where you feel that you have operational safety being affected by rig efficiency and rig rates?

Mr. HARRELL: I'm sure at times, you know, people want to get it down, you know, and try to meet timelines. But no, not - never jeopardize safety.

FESSLER: Harrell's testimony was in sharp contrast to that of Transocean mechanic Douglas Brown and to evidence from other investigations about safety concerns on the rig. Two BP managers had been scheduled to testify yesterday, but one declined for health reasons. The other invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

The board did hear from the Deepwater Horizon's captain Curt´┐ŻKuchta, who works for Transocean. Investigators have raised concerns that it wasn't always clear who gave the orders on the rig. They asked Kuchta how the crew knew who was in charge.

Captain CURT KUCHTA (Deepwater Horizon): It's pretty well understood amongst the crew who's in charge.

Unidentified Man: How do they know that? I mean...

Captain KUCHTA: I guess, I don't know.

Unidentified Man: Ok.

Captain KUCHTA: But it's pretty well - everyone knows.

FESSLER: The panel still has a long way to go trying to figure out what went wrong. It will hear from more witnesses this week and will hold additional hearings in July. A final report isn't expected until January.

Pam Fessler, NPR News, New Orleans.

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