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November 15, 2010
Volume 88, Number 46
p. 9
DOI: 10.1021/CEN111110150122

Safety Board May Halt Oil Rig Probe

BP Accident: The independent panel objects to limits on its role in the investigation

Jeff Johnson

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Restrictions on examination of the failed blowout preventer, shown here being pulled from the ocean on Sept. 4, have led to conflict between CSB and other federal agencies. Newscom
Restrictions on examination of the failed blowout preventer, shown here being pulled from the ocean on Sept. 4, have led to conflict between CSB and other federal agencies.

The Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) is objecting to limitations imposed on it by federal agencies leading the investigation of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion. Last week, the board threatened to sue to gain greater access to evidence and to overcome restrictions it will face during a closed-door forensic investigation of the oil rig’s failed blowout preventer, which is just getting under way in Louisiana.

The board’s investigation is one of a dozen examining the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion that occurred in April, killing 11 workers and creating the nation’s largest oil spill. Because of its expertise, the independent board was asked by members of Congress to investigate the accident’s cause.

The U.S. Coast Guard and Department of the Interior are overseeing the overall investigation through their Joint Investigation Team (JIT) and have selected Det Norske Veritas (DNV), a Norwegian firm, to design and conduct a forensic examination of the blowout preventer.

In letters to JIT and DNV, CSB laid out a host of concerns over its limited role in the investigation and said it wants to ensure that evidence collected by DNV is protected and readily available to CSB. The board is particularly concerned about restrictions in its role during the forensic examination set to begin Nov. 15, says Donald Holmstrom, CSB investigations supervisor.

JIT will allow only six witnesses to the forensic analysis: one each from Cameron, the manufacturer of the blowout preventer; BP, the well’s owner; Transocean, the driller; the Department of Justice; and CSB; as well as a representative for plaintiffs who are litigating over the accident. But CSB wants to rotate subject experts in and out of the examination, Holm­strom says, and this will not be allowed under an agreement CSB must sign to gain access to the examination, which involves a series of one-time destructive tests.

In a statement, JIT emphasizes that the technical team’s role is limited: They can only confer with the forensic examiner, DNV, over “decisions that must be made during the analysis that were not foreseen in the final test plan,” which was also developed by DNV, a past adviser to BP. JIT officials add that the six parties must reach “consensus” before any modification of the DNV test plan can occur during the examination.

Despite back-and-forth negotiations, no resolution had been reached as C&EN went to press. JIT has “bent over backwards” to reach an agreement, according to its spokesperson. CSB disagrees, and Holmstrom notes that the statute creating CSB states that other federal agencies cannot restrict the board’s investigation. CSB has threatened to go to federal court to block the investigation and has suggested the appointment of a special master to oversee the forensic examination and evidence collection.

“This is not a turf battle,” Holmstrom stresses, “but we are an independent agency, and we want the authority to conduct our investigation.”

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2011 American Chemical Society
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