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Gulf oil spill: BP failed to shut down well after leaks in blowout preventer, apparently violating rules

July 20, 2010 |  1:26 pm
Top oil rig officials knew that the blowout preventer -- the mechanism that failed to shut off the geyser of oil gushing from a well up to a drilling platform -- suffered mechanical problems at least three months before the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon, according to testimony Tuesday at a federal hearing in suburban New Orleans.

The testimony is significant because it shows that the rig’s top officers were aware that this crucial piece of equipment had known problems. The blowout preventer is the last measure of protection to prevent an out-of-control oil well from gushing petroleum to the surface.

“One of the [blowout preventer] functions was leaking hydraulic fluid — the fluid used in the system to operate it,” Ronald Sepulvado, one of BP’s two top officials aboard the floating mobile oil rig, told a joint U.S. Coast Guard-Interior Department panel.

Sepulvado had been assigned to the Deepwater Horizon for seven years, but had left the rig four days before it exploded to attend a school in Louisiana on blowout preventers.

The hydraulic fluids are what make the blowout preventer work. After receiving a signal from the rig, the fluids force what are essentially giant scissors to snap shut the pipe that connects the oil well, a mile below sea level, to the rig. 

Testimony showed that as early as February, a routine monthly maintenance report showed fluids leaking from the blowout preventer. A subsequent report in March showed the problem had not been fixed.

Following the April 20 explosion, oil rig officials spent weeks trying to make the blowout preventer work, to stop the flow of an estimated 35,000 to 60,000 barrels of crude per day into the Gulf of Mexico. All those efforts failed, forcing officials to look for other ways to cap the out-of-control well.

Jason Mathews, an official with an arm of the Interior Department who is on the six-man panel investigating the cause of the rig’s explosion, asked Sepulvado whether the blowout preventer leak was reported to U.S. regulators.

“I don’t know. I reported it to John Guide, who was the [BP] team leader at the time. I don’t know if he reported it to MMS or not,” Sepulvado said, referring to the U.S. Minerals Management Service, the former regulatory agency that oversaw offshore drilling in federal waters.

Mathews asked Sepulvado to read aloud federal rules on what to do if the device that makes the blowout preventer work is “not fully functional.”

“To suspend further drilling until [it] is operable,” Sepulvado read.

“Was that done at the Deepwater Horizon?” Mathews asked.

“Well, no, it wasn’t. The reason it wasn’t, I guess, was we assumed everything was O.K, since I reported it to the team leader and he should’ve reported it to MMS,” Sepulvado said.

Later, Mathews read off the results of an audit of the rig conducted April 4 to 14, which showed that the blowout preventer “was well past its ... inspection dates of every three to five years.”

“Are you familiar you are required to have the ... inspections on them every three to five years?” Mathews asked.

“No, I didn’t,” Sepulvado said.

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