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And we're learning a little more about how a damaged oil well leaked millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico last year. A federal investigation of the BP spill is focusing on the blowout preventer. The giant piece of machinery was supposed to do what its name suggests: stop oil from blasting under high pressure into the ocean.

NPR's Debbie Elliott reports on what happened instead.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: Federal officials hired a team of forensic experts to examine the Deepwater Horizon's blow-out preventer, obviously not the fail-safe device the oil and gas industry counted on to prevent a disaster like the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. The four-story stack of valves, seals and hydraulic rams was salvaged from the ocean floor and examined by the Norwegian risk-management firm Det Norske Veritas.

For the first time yesterday, the team's leader, material sciences engineer and DNV Vice President Neil Thompson, testified before a joint panel of the Coast Guard and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, meeting outside New Orleans.

When something goes wrong with a well, the blowout preventer's shears are supposed to clamp down, cut and seal the drill pipe, preventing the oil from escaping. But in this case, Thompson says, that didn't work, because after the force of the explosion, the drill pipe wasn't aligned just right.

Dr. NEIL THOMPSON (Vice President, Det Norske Veritas): The primary cause was that the drill pipe was off center in the wellbore.

ELLIOTT: Using computer-generated models, he shows his team's theory about what happened when the shear rams tried to cut the flow.

Dr. THOMPSON: And you can see the pipe begins to fold in, but there's a portion of pipe that is caught between the two ram block faces, then they can't fully close.

ELLIOTT: But lawyers for the companies responsible for the rig and blowout preventer question the findings as a novel and unprecedented theory. They argue investigators failed to test all the possible explanations for what might have caused the device to fail. All the interested parties in the Deepwater Horizon explosion get a chance to question witnesses. Here's attorney David Jones, who represents Cameron International, the company that made the blowout preventer.

Mr. DAVID JONES (Attorney): Dr. Thompson, do you have any operational experience working on a drilling rig?

Dr. THOMPSON: I do not.

Mr. JONES: Before your involvement in this investigation, had you laid eyes on a blowout preventer?

Dr. THOMPSON: I had not.

ELLIOTT: The forensic testing of the blowout preventer has been fraught with delay and controversy, as attorneys weighed in on how to make sure all the evidence collected from the Gulf floor is preserved for litigation purposes. Experts from the companies are expected to testify later this week, with the exception of rig operator Transocean. The company's officials have refused to appear, while at the same time doling out bonuses for, quote, "the best year in safety performance in our company's history."

Mr. WILLIAM REILLY (Co-chair of President's Oil Spill Commission): Some companies just don't get it. I think Transocean doesn't get it.

ELLIOTT: William Reilly is co-chair of the president's oil spill commission. In a teleconference yesterday, he called the wording in the company's proxy statement embarrassing. Unlike the board meeting in Louisiana this week, the presidential panel has completed its probe and blames the oil spill on a series of time and money-saving decisions and management missteps by Transocean, BP and Halliburton. Transocean says it regrets insensitive wording in its securities filing.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Metairie, Louisiana.

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