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Vol. 74/No. 23      June 14, 2010

Unsafe practices by BP
led to Gulf oil disaster
(front page)
June 2—As more details emerge on BP’s unsafe practices leading up to the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon platform in the Gulf of Mexico, the ensuing oil spill has grown to be the largest in U.S. history.

The explosion killed 11 of the 126 crew members on board and unleashed gushing oil that has still not been contained.

After many failed attempts to stop the oil leak, BP began a procedure May 31 to contain some portion of the oil in a dome and pump it to a tanker on the surface. The plan carries a potential risk of increasing the oil flow.

Adm. Thad Allen, National Incident Commander, told a news conference there is no longer a hope of plugging the well, so the effort is now focused on containment. The measure is a temporary solution until a relief well can be built, which the company says will take until August.

Scientists now estimate the leak at 12,000 to 19,000 barrels a day, up from earlier claims of about 5,000 barrels.

Hearings in Louisiana and Washington, D.C., have shed more light on the extent to which BP disregarded safety in its drive to rapidly finish work at this well to move the platform to a new location for more exploratory drilling.

BP was tapping an oil deposit reported to be the second largest in the world, a mile below the surface. The site also contains large deposits of natural gas.

In a speed-up drive for profit, BP cut back on standard measures used to prevent a surge of explosive gas like the one that caused the rig explosion.

At congressional hearings in Washington, Stephen Stone, a worker on the rig, said that four times in the previous 20 days crews had to stop pumping drilling mud into the well—the primary means of controlling the pressure of oil and gas while drilling—and instead pumped heavy-duty sealant to stop cracks that were developing in the well foundation.

Doug Brown, the engine room’s acting second engineer, told a joint U.S. Coast Guard and Minerals Management Service hearing in Kenner, Louisiana, there was a “skirmish” between BP and Transocean employees only hours before the explosion. BP decided to use lighter saltwater instead of heavier drilling mud before temporarily plugging the well with cement. Heavier fluid has a greater capacity to counteract higher pressures of oil and gas and prevent it from surging upwards.

Behind schedule and over budget, “BP made choices over the course of the project that rendered this well more vulnerable to the blowout,” the Wall Street Journal stated. BP cut short one procedure that detects gas in the well and removes it. The company also skipped a quality test of the cement barrier around the well, which serves as a buffer against high-pressure gas.

In BP documents obtained by the New York Times, the company described the “best economic case” for using a less expensive type of well casing that provided less protection against gas leaks. Equipment readings hours before the explosion indicate gas was bubbling into the well, a sign of an impending blowout.

Once the explosion happened, workers report a chaotic and confused scene with no clear directions from those in charge. Andrea Fleytas, 23, one of three women on the crew, sent out a distress signal for the Coast Guard when she realized none had been given. In a Journal interview Fleytas said the rig captain reprimanded her for her actions. The paper reports there was no clear evacuation plan and some workers resorted to jumping into the ocean 75 feet below.  
BP officials keep mum
Robert Kaluza, a BP official aboard the Deepwater Horizon when it exploded, refused to testify at hearings, citing his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

After weeks of criticism for lack of action, President Barack Obama stated at a May 27 press conference, “The federal government has been in charge of the response effort,” from the beginning. He said Secretary of Energy Steven Chu has brought together “a brain trust, some of the smartest folks we have at the National Labs and in academia to essentially serve as an oversight board with BP engineers and scientists.”

Oil has hit more than 125 miles of Louisiana coastline and penetrated some of the marshes. In deep sea much of the oil hovers in plumes of fine oil droplets instead of laying on the surface of the water or making it to land. Scientists from the University of South Florida said they found a plume six miles wide and 20 miles long reaching from the surface down to 3,200 feet.

Seven cleanup workers in Louisiana were hospitalized May 26 after complaining of nausea, dizziness, and headaches.

BP continues to use a chemical dispersant called Corexit, even though the Environmental Protection Agency has demanded the company use something less toxic to break up the oil.
Related articles:
Massey coal mine where 29 died was ‘ticking time bomb’
BP, gov’t to blame for oil disaster  
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