Special Reports

Oil spill probe: Safety device, plans didn’t match

WASHINGTON — In the days after a oil well spun out of control in the Gulf of Mexico, BP engineers tried to activate a huge piece of underwater safety equipment but failed because the device had been so altered that diagrams BP got from the equipment’s owner didn’t match the supposedly failsafe device’s current configuration, congressional investigators said Wednesday.

The oil well also failed at least one critical pressure test on the day that gas surged up the drill pipe and set the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig aflame, killing 11 and setting off a spill that has spewed 210,000 gallons of crude into the Gulf every day for three weeks, according to BP documents provided to congressional investigators.

“The more I learn about this accident, the more concerned I become. This catastrophe appears to have been caused by a calamitous series of equipment and operational failures” said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said at a hearing Wednesday — the third congressional hearing in two days on the unfolding catastrophe.

Meanwhile, BP engineers announced that they were considering yet another tactic to seal one of two leaks 5,000 feet below the Gulf’s surface. The new tactic, dubbed the “insertion tube” by BP, would attempt to insert a smaller pipe into the leaking one and siphon the oil to the surface. It would complement a previously announced plan to place a small funnel that BP engineers call a “top hat” over the same leak.

The “top hat” arrived on the sea floor Tuesday night, and BP officials said it might be deployed over the leak today. It was unclear, however, whether it and the “insertion tube” would be tried simultaneously or whether the “insertion tube” was an alternative to the “top hat.”

Word of the missing diagram, the failed test and the addition of another experimental option to close the leak came as the Obama administration announced that it had recruited five government and private scientists to add what Energy Secretary Stephen Chu called “intellectual horsepower” to BP’s efforts to contain the oil spill and shut off the well.

Gulf coast officials remained angry at the spill and the risk it poses to local government, and the White House announced that it would work to raise the current $75 million limit on how much oil companies can be forced to pay for damages and other costs.

At Venice, La., Gov. Bobby Jindal reiterated his call for BP to supply more anti-oil booms to help keep the oil out of Louisiana’s wetlands.

“There was no reason for this accident — this tragedy — to have happened and so I absolutely want them to get to the bottom of what didn’t work, make sure it doesn’t happen again,” he said. “But here in Louisiana, here on the ground, our number one priority is protecting our way of life, protecting our coast, and we’ve got to be completely 100 percent focused on that.”

Who ordered the alterations in the blowout protector, the 500,000 pound mass of gears and hydraulic valves that sits atop and underwater well and is intended to snap the pipe if disaster threatens, was the subject of dispute at Wednesday’s hearing.

Transocean, the owner of the blowout protector and of the sunken Deepwater Horizon rig, said any alterations would have come at BP’s instigation; BP, which owns the well and hired Transocean to drill it, said it had never sought the changes.

In Kenner, La., at a separate hearing, Coast Guard inspectors testified that regulations for offshore drilling rigs largely date to 1978 and have not kept pace with technological advances.

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