U.S. Coast Guard investigation finds 'poor safety culture' contributed to Deepwater Horizon disaster

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Sunday, April 24, 2011

Fireboats tackling the fire on Deepwater Horizon last year. The explosion on the rig killed eleven people and began the largest oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry.
Image: United States Coast Guard.

An investigation by the United States Coast Guard has concluded the largest oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry was partly the result of a "poor safety culture" aboard the Deepwater Horizon oil rig. The April 2010 explosion aboard the rig, which is located in the Gulf of Mexico, triggered a disaster that led to widespread environmental damage.

The report squarely blames Transocean, which managed the Deepwater Horizon, for being largely responsible for the explosion that claimed eleven lives. The rig had "serious safety management system failures and a poor safety culture," the report says. Transocean fiercely rejected allegations that crews aboard the rig were badly trained and equipment was poorly maintained.

Cquote1.svg Deepwater Horizon and its owner, Transocean, had serious safety management system failures and a poor safety culture. Cquote2.svg

United States Coast Guard

A slapdash safety environment on Deepwater Horizon would mean equipment was not mended or replaced if it meant losing valuable hours of drilling, the Coast Guard found. Electrical equipment believed to have caused a spark that ignited flammable gas was described as being in "bad condition" and "seriously corroded." The report found that other deficiencies—improperly assembled gas detectors and emergency equipment; audible alarms switched off because of nuisance false warnings; complacency with fire drills; and poor preparation for dealing with a well blowout—all contributed to the disaster.

Transocean attacked the report's conclusions and suggested the Coast Guard may have played a role in the disaster. A spokesperson for the company said Deepwater Horizon had been inspected by Coast Guard officials only months before the explosion, officials who said it complied with safety standards. "We strongly disagree with—and documentary evidence in the Coast Guard's possession refutes—key findings in this report," the company said.

This week, Deepwater Horizon owner BP launched legal action against Transocean. It also filed a lawsuit against Halliburton, the company that cemented the well, and Cameron, which manufactured the rig's failed blowout preventer. BP is reportedly seeking to claim US$40 billion in damages, and alleges it has taken a massive financial hit and loss of reputation. In a statement, BP said it filed the lawsuits "to ensure that all parties ... are appropriately held accountable for their roles in contributing to the Deepwater Horizon accident".

A robotic submarine working on the blowout preventer of Deepwater Horizon while oil was leaking from the well. BP is suing Cameron, who manufactured the blowout preventer.
Image: United States Coast Guard.

In the lawsuit against Transocean, BP claims the company missed signs that a disaster was imminent and that it "materially breached its contractual duties in its actions and inactions leading to the loss of well control, the explosion and the loss of life and injuries onboard the Deepwater Horizon, as well as the resulting oil spill." Halliburton, BP alleges, was riddled with "improper conduct, errors and omissions, including fraud and concealment" which led to the disaster, and continues to refuse to cooperate with investigators.

Transocean dismissed the lawsuit as "desperate" and "unconscionable," and announced a countersuit against BP, which it claims was responsible for the disaster "through a series of cost-saving decisions that increased risk, in some cases severely." Halliburton and Cameron, which is also countersuing, announced they would defend themselves against BP's allegations.

U.S. President Barack Obama marked the anniversary of the explosion by conceding that although "progress" has been made to ensure the safety of deep water drilling rigs, "the job isn't done." Obama's comments came less than a week after leading experts raised serious questions over the security of deep water drilling as the U.S. government approves more exploration without improving safety measures.

Barack Obama marked the anniversary by conceding that although "progress" has been made to ensure the safety of deep water drilling rigs, "the job isn't done."
Image: Obama-Biden transition project.

Charles Perrow, a professor at Yale University, said the oil industry "is ill prepared at the least" to deal with another oil spill, despite repeated assurances from the industry and the government, which insists lessons have been learned from the Deepwater Horizon disaster. "I have seen no evidence that they have marshaled containment efforts that are sufficient to deal with another major spill," he said. "Even if everybody tries very hard, there is going to be an accident caused by cost-cutting and pressure on workers. These are moneymaking machines and they make money by pushing things to the limit."

However, politicians have insisted they are doing all they can to help clean the coast of oil. "Cleanup efforts in some places are still ongoing, and the full scale of the damage done to our state has yet to be calculated, but the good news is that most all of our fishing waters are back open again," said Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal at a press conference. "All of us here today want the entire nation to get the message that Louisiana is making another historic comeback."

Cquote1.svg I don't see any hope at all. We thought we'd see hope after a year, but there's nothing. Cquote2.svg

Gulf Coast fisherwoman

Gulf Coast residents, activists and relatives of the crewmen who were killed in the explosion paused this week for the anniversary of the oil spill's beginning. A helicopter took the victims' families from New Orleans to over the site where the rig stood, where it circled. "It was just a little emotional, seeing where they were," said one victim's mother. Remembrance services and candlelight vigils were held in the Gulf Coast region, which continues to suffer from the fallout of the catastrophe. The families have expressed anger at BP, who they say is being unfair and slow in paying out compensation from a $20 billion fund.

The area is still heavily affected by the disaster and reconstruction of the seafood industry that once thrived is slow. While tourists are beginning to return to the region, many are angry at BP and the Obama administration over how they handled the disaster. All the fishing waters in the area have now opened again, but people who live in the area remain dissatisfied. "I don't see any daylight at the end of this tunnel," one fisherwoman said. "I don't see any hope at all. We thought we'd see hope after a year, but there's nothing."


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