BP Spill May Highlight Role (Or Lack) Of Engineering Docs : The Two-Way By Frank James When executives from the companies most tied to the Deepwater Horizon disaster testified on Capitol Hill this week, they were asked by lawmakers about modifications made to equipment that was supposed to prevent a devastating blowo...
NPR logo BP Spill May Highlight Role (Or Lack) Of Engineering Docs

BP Spill May Highlight Role (Or Lack) Of Engineering Docs

When executives from the companies most tied to the Deepwater Horizon disaster testified on Capitol Hill this week, they were asked by lawmakers about modifications made to equipment that was supposed to prevent a devastating blowout and spill in the case of an accident like the one that occurred.

That line of inquiry was based on information developed by congressional investigators who learned in the course of their probe that modifications were made to the blowout preventer by Transocean, the rig owner, that caused the engineering drawings BP consulted to not match the facts it found underwater when it first tried to first stop the spill in the hours after the accident.

BP official, Lamar Mckay, said the mismatch between those engineering documents and the actual way the equipment was configured, delayed its response

As it turns out, there were concerns about engineering documents related to at least one other BP project, the BP Atlantis rig operating about 200 miles south of New Orleans in the Gulf of Mexico like the ill-fated Deepwater Horizon.

Congress became aware of a whistleblower who told the Minerals Management Service in March 2009 that BP wasn't abiding by federal regulations to have the required engineer approved drawings of that rig's underwater components.

According to a a February 2010 letter from House members to the Minerals Management Service passed along to us by NPR's Andrea Seabrook:

In recent months, we have heard disturbing reports regarding British Petroleum's (BP) Atlantis platform in the Gulf of Mexico. This platform, the largest oil and natural gas platform in the world, may be operating without crucial engineering documents, which, if absent, would increase the risk of a catastrophic accident that would threaten not only the workers on the platform, but also the Gulf of Mexico and the communities who depend on the resources it provides.

A review of BP's database in existence at that time and provided by the whistleblower appears to show that of the over 7,176 documents and drawings for Atlantis's subsea components —- a total of 6,393 of them —- over 90% —- may not have been approved by a professional engineer, as required by regulation. BP's own internal communication indicates that using incomplete or inaccurate documents "could lead to catastrophic Operator errors due to their assuming the drawing is correct."

We are also concerned that your interpretation of 30 C.F.R. ?? 250.903(a)(1), and its application to approval of operations at Atlantis indicates a less than acceptable standard. Specifically, communications between MMS and congressional staff have suggested that while the company by law must malntain "as-built" documents, there is no requirement that such documents be complete or accurate. This statement, if an accurate interpretation of MMS authorities, raises
serious concerns.

So lawmakers were concerned that the absence of accurate engineering drawings could lead to a disaster.

We know from the testimony of BP's McKay that the lack of such drawings after the Deepwater Horizon accident slowed the response.

Here's some of the interchange between McKay and lawmakers on the issue from a Wednesday hearing before a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee.

REP. BURGESS: Mr. McKay just to kind of get back to some of the specifics of the modifications of the blowout protector, our — what we know from Tab 4 in the evidence binder modifications that have been discovered in the blowout protector system, can you give us the specific modifications that were discovered in the BOP system?

MR. MCKAY: What I was referring to yesterday is while we were doing ROV remote operated vehicle interventions as the crisis has unfolded, we discovered that there were modifications made. I don't know personally whether those were the exact modifications that Mr. Newman referenced that were done in 2005 or there were additional ones. And I think that's a very, very important piece of the investigation. We found leaking hoses and — you know, the diagrams that we were using real time did not match the blowout preventer...

... REP. SCHAKOWSKY: ... And time was a critical element in this disaster. It's possible that a rapid response on the deck of the rig could have prevented the catastrophe that continues today, and a faster response by BP and Transocean might have reduced the size of the leak or cut it off faster.

But we learned during the course of our investigation that, again, the critical modifications — we've talked about modifications — to the blowout preventer may have delayed significantly the response and might have been responsible for the failure of the device. Mr. McKay, your company documents describe modifications that were made to the blowout preventer device. We were told by James Dupree who runs your Gulf of Mexico operations that you found major modifications to the system. In one case, a module that was supposed to be connected to a critical piece of equipment called a bore ram that's designed to seal tight any piece of pipe in the well was instead connected to a test ram that does not function in an emergency situation. Do you agree with that finding?

MR. MCKAY: I was not in that review. But I know that's what Mr.
Dupree said, and he should know. Yes.

REP. SCHAKOWSKY: So yes. In another case, two independent controls for rams were wired into a single control, possibly increasing the risk of failure. Is that correct?

MR. MCKAY: If that's what Mr. Dupree said, that's what he discovered with Transocean and Cameron and other folks in the intervention.

REP. SCHAKOWSKY: My understanding is that because of these
modifications, you lost nearly 24 hours attempting to activate the
controls on the bore ram, is that correct?

MR. MCKAY: We discovered leaks and other things, the
modifications that didn't match the drawings as we were doing these
interventions and it did delay things, yes.