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Gulf oil spill: BP may have sent some crew ashore to make room for officials

July 20, 2010 |  2:35 pm
Investigators suggested Tuesday that the arrival of BP officials to congratulate the crew of the Deepwater Horizon for a sparkling safety record hours before the oil rig exploded may have forced the departure of rig workers because the rig was already at capacity.

The officials were coming aboard to “commend the crew for having seven years with no accident and days away from work,” Ronald Sepulvado, one of two top BP officials aboard the rig until he left four days before it exploded, told a joint U.S. Coast Guard-Interior Department panel investigating the cause of the April 20 explosion.

“Were you all at personnel-on-board capacity when you left the rig?” asked Jason Mathews, an official with the arm of the U.S. Department of Interior.

“Off and on we do. And we did. And usually what we have to do is send some people off the rig if we have other people coming on, to keep us from getting to that capacity,” Sepulvado said.

“And how do you accommodate additional visitors if you’re already at [capacity]?” Mathews asked.

“We’d have to send somebody in” back to land, Sepulvado said.

Sepulvado, who had been stationed on the Deepwater Horizon for seven years, left the rig on April 16, four days before the explosion, to receiving training in Louisiana. Another BP official replaced him.

Later in the hearing, U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Hung Nguyen, a panelist, questioned Lee Lambert, a BP well site trainee, whether he found it disruptive for Sepulvado to leave the rig so soon before a major event -- the plugging of the well with cement to save it for future production, a procedure that was completed just before the oil rig exploded.

Investigators have suggested that after rig officials believed they had sealed the well, a highly pressurized burst of natural gas somehow shot through the seal, continuing up the pipe to the rig, causing an explosion and fire.

“Were you aware of concern as far as the switching out of Mr. Sepulvado with Mr. Kaluza when it’s so close to completion?” Nguyen asked, referring to Robert Kaluza, who replaced Sepulvado.

“I’m not aware of any concern with that,” Lambert said.

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