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Gulf oil spill: Experience of BP official on rig questioned

July 22, 2010 |  2:38 pm
A federal investigator questioned the managerial fitness of one of BP’s top two officials who were aboard the Deepwater Horizon, the oil rig that exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 crew members and starting the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history. The official, Robert Kaluza, had just four days of experience aboard the Deepwater Horizon before it exploded on April 20. He replaced Ronald Sepulvado, who spent seven years aboard the mobile floating oil rig and had 33 years of experience as a well-site leader. Sepulvado returned to Louisiana on April 16 for routine training.

Kaluza, as well as the other top BP official to remain on the rig, Donald Vidrine, were in position to make critical decisions on the rig in the hours before it erupted in flames.

U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Hung Nguyen questioned the supervisor of the three men, John Guide, asking why a person without experience on the Deepwater Horizon would be assigned to the rig just before a critical operation — the sealing of a well. It is believed that something went wrong during that process, leading to natural gas erupting onto the rig, where it ignited.

“It appeared to me that during the critical period of operation here, the decision was made to allow Mr. Sepulvado to attend a routine training ... and be replaced with Mr. Kaluza, who has less experience than Mr. Sepulvado,” Nguyen said.

Guide told investigators that Sepulvado came back to shore because it was time for Sepulvado to attend the training.

He defended the reassignment, saying Kaluza was a well-site leader aboard another rig, and he said he believes all of BP’s well-site leaders are qualified.

Nguyen was skeptical.

“What I’m looking at here is, here you have an experienced well-site leader, being on the vessel for quite a while, and this is during a critical stage of the operation. And you replace him,” Nguyen said.

The testimony was given at a hearing in suburban New Orleans as part of a Coast Guard-Interior Department investigation into the cause of the oil spill.

Kaluza has twice refused to testify at the hearings, invoking his 5th Amendment constitutional right not to give testimony that could incriminate him.

When called to testify this week and in May, Vidrine has supplied a doctor’s note. Vidrine, who had six months of experience aboard the Deepwater Horizon, has been called to testify at another set of hearings scheduled for August 23-27 in Houston.

-- Rong-Gong Lin II in Kenner, La.