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Gulf oil spill: Captain's leadership questioned by lead federal investigator

August 24, 2010 | 11:45 am

Is it a good idea to have a captain of an oil rig who has no say in decisions that could jeopardize the safety of his crew?

That's one key question a lead federal investigator has for Transocean, the owner and operator of the ill-fated Deepwater Horizon, whose destruction caused the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history.

At a federal hearing Tuesday in Houston, investigator Hung Nguyen, a U.S. Coast Guard captain, illustrated how no single person seemed to be in charge and aware of all risks on the oil rig.

BP was a decision-maker on the much-criticized oil well design that experts have said was flawed and dangerous, and the company skipped a number of safety procedures that could have detected or prevented a dangerous flow of flammable gas from below the seafloor onto the rig, causing disaster.

Transocean, meanwhile, was in charge of running the floating, mobile oil rig. In addition to questioning the rig's history of poor maintenance, investigators have questioned many of the captain's actions and qualifications. Testimony has shown that the captain was kept out of the loop on key decisions, which were decided either by another Transocean manager or BP officials in charge of drilling and sealing the well.

Pointed questions by Nguyen illustrated his skepticism that the rig's captain failed to have "overriding authority and the responsibility to make decisions with respect to safety," as required by the global code on maritime safety, the International Safety Management Code.

Nguyen also raised questions on the judgment and qualifications of Deepwater Horizon Capt. Curt Kuchta. Kuchta did not complain to Daun Winslow, a senior Transocean division manager, about lacking enough staff to work on overdue maintenance jobs despite a BP audit showing major problems, according to testimony Tuesday.

Nguyen also questioned Transocean's oversight of the rig. He recalled testimony given Monday that two Transocean managers lacked the technical background to determine whether the planning and procedures aboard the Deepwater Horizon were sound from an engineering perspective.

Furthermore, shore-based Transocean rig manager Paul Johnson testified Monday that he never received documents from BP that are important to his job duties -- the BP morning reports and the plan to plug the well.

Nguyen castigated Winslow, the Transocean performance manager, for not knowing whether Transocean had conducted an internal audit as to whether its safety management system was adequate according to the International Safety Management Code.

"It's been four months since the tragedy, and you don't know?" Nguyen asked.

"That is correct," Winslow said softly.

Also Tuesday, testimony and questions indicated that as Kuchta hesitated in the crucial moments after the April 20 explosion, Winslow, the Transocean division manager, instead facilitated the evacuation of the 115 survivors.

On Monday, Winslow testified that he told Kuchta to get people to the lifeboats when Kuchta apparently did not realize the extent of the destruction aboard the rig.

Greg Linsin, an attorney on behalf of the Marshall Islands, where the Deepwater Horizon was registered, offered his thanks to Winslow for helping with the evacuation.

The testimony took place at a joint hearing by the U.S. Coast Guard and the Department of the Interior, which has been ordered by the federal government to determine the cause of the Deepwater Horizon explosion, which killed 11 crew members.

-- Rong-Gong Lin II in Houston