Inspections of Deepwater Horizon Oil Rig Lagged

The Deepwater Horizon oil rig was not being subjected to monthly inspections, despite a Mineral and Management Services (MMS) policy mandating such inspections. According to the Associated Press, the frequency of the agency’s inspections of Deepwater Horizon also fell dramatically over the past five years.

The Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, which BP PLC leased from TransOcean LTD, exploded off the coast of Louisiana on April 20 and sank two days later. Eleven rig workers missing since the blast are presumed dead. The explosion also spawned a massive oil spill that now threatens much of the Gulf Coast. An estimated 5,000 barrels of oil -210,000 gallons – is gushing from the leaking well each day, though there are fears that the true amount is far higher.

According to the Associated Press, MMS – the federal agency responsible for ensuring that the Deepwater Horizon oil rig was operating safety – had heralded the offshore platform as an industry model for safety. Since January 2005, inspectors issued just one minor infraction for the rig.

The Associated Press has tried to ascertain how often MMS inspectors had visited Deepwater Horizon prior to last month’s explosion, but numbers from the agency keep changing. At first, officials said 83 inspections had been performed since the rig arrived in the Gulf 104 months ago, in September 2001. They then revised that number to 88. The number of more recent inspections also changed — from 26 to 48 in the 64 months since January 2005.

No explanation was given for the upward revisions According to the Associated Press, MMS has had long-standing issues with its data management.

The numbers the Associated Press has been able to obtain do show that Deepwater Horizon underwent 40 inspections during its first 40 months in the Gulf. But in the 64 months leading up to the spill, 25 percent of monthly inspections were not performed. And that’s based on the most favorable set of numbers MMS provided.

Documents the Associated Press obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request indicate that inspectors spent two hours or less each time they visited the massive rig. Some information appeared to be “whited out,” without explanation, the report said.

The Department of the Interior, which MMS is a part of, maintains that monthly inspections of offshore drilling rigs are an agency policy, though not required by regulation. In an email, David Dykes, chief of the agency’s office of safety management for the Gulf region told the Associated Press that MMS inspects rigs “at least once a month” when drilling is under way.

The Associated Press also said that the inspection history from Deepwater Horizon indicated it had been cited six times for “incidents of noncompliance.” Interior officials told the Associated Press that one of those was rescinded, but could not say which one.

The most serious occurred in July 2002 when the rig was shut down because required pressure tests had not been conducted on parts of the rig’s blowout preventer. Another citation issued in September 2002 noted “problems or irregularities observed during the testing” of the blowout preventer system.

The blowout preventer was modified in 2005, but it is suspected that this equipment failed on Deepwater Horizon at the time of the explosion.

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