Evidence Emerges at Oil Spill Hearing That BP Ignored Warnings

Two days before an explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon oil rig killed 11 and spawned the worst oil spill in US history, BP was warned it might have a problem with natural gas leaking from the well. According to a report in the Houston Chronicle, the revelation came from an internal report that emerged in an investigative hearing in Kenner, Louisiana yesterday.

The warning came from Halliburton Co., a contractor aboard the rig. A faulty cement job by Halliburton to secure the well’s casing has been cited by many as a possible factor in the April 20 disaster, the Chronicle said.

Yesterday was the second day of the hearing into the BP oil spill, which is being conducted jointly by the US Coast Guard and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement (formerly Minerals Management Service).

According to the Houston Chronicle, Ronald Sepulvado, a BP well site leader on the rig who left five days before the blast, told the panel yesterday that he had received a separate April 15 Halliburton report warning of minor gas flow risks but not the April 18 report. Sepulvado admitted to not reading that report in its entirety, but said that if there was a serious risk, it should have been more clearly communicated by BP engineers in Houston.

According to a Wall Street Journal report, Sepulvado also told the panel that workers detected a leak in the hydraulic system that controls the blowout preventer, a piece of equipment that is supposed to shut down a well in an emergency. In the case of the Deepwater Horizon rig, the blowout preventer failed for unknown reasons.

A leaky hydraulic system by itself shouldn’t have kept the blowout preventer from working, as it had a backup system, and Sepulvado said he didn’t believe the leak involved a “critical function” of the blowout preventer.

However, according to the Journal, federal investigators said that continuing to drill with a faulty hydraulic system could have been a violation of federal regulations, which require companies to stop drilling if either of a blowout preventer’s two control systems doesn’t work properly. According to Sepulvado, he reported the problem to BP officials in Houston, and they should have passed that information along to federal regulators. So far, no evidence has emerged that it was.

Sepulvado also said he was aware of an April audit that found the Deepwater Horizon’s blowout preventer was long overdue for a major inspection, the Journal said. He also said he had raised concerns about Transocean’s maintenance of the blowout preventer, saying some pieces of equipment had been out of service for extended periods of time. He told the panel that Transocean “always told me that they didn’t have the parts.”

Yesterday’s hearing was slated to continue into today, but according to the Houston Chronicle, four witnesses – all subsea supervisors with Swiss-based Transocean – have postponed their appearances. The hearing is supposed to resume on Thursday.

Meanwhile, on another front, federal officials were trying to quell fears that an effort to contain the gushing well a mile beneath the Gulf of Mexico was threatening its integrity. The well has been capped since late last week, after BP installed a tighter fitting containment device over it. However, seepage was discovered around it, raising concerns that the well may be buckling under pressure.

Yesterday, Retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who is overseeing the federal government’s response to the disaster, said at least five leaks have been discovered around the well machinery. But according to the Associated Press, Allen said another well is to blame. The seepage is closer to the older well than to the one that blew out, Allen said. Also, he said, “it’s not unusual to have seepage around the old wells.”

According to the Associated Press, there are two wells within two miles of BP’s gusher, one of which is abandoned and another not in production. There are around 27,000 abandoned wells in the Gulf aren’t regularly checked for leaks, the Associated Press said.

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