Alarm and other safety sys­tems dis­abled on oil rig, worker says

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By David S. Hilzenrath

KEN­NER, La. — Long be­fore an erup­tion of gas turned the Deep­wa­ter Hori­zon oil rig into a fire­ball, an alarm sys­tem de­signed to alert the crew and pre­vent com­bustible gases from reach­ing po­ten­tial sources of ig­ni­tion had been de­lib­er­ately dis­abled, the for­mer chief elec­tron­ics tech­ni­cian on the rig tes­ti­fied Fri­day.

Michael Wil­liams, a for­mer Ma­rine who sur­vived the April 20 in­ferno by jump­ing from the burn­ing rig, told a fed­eral panel prob­ing the dis­as­ter that the alarm sys­tem was one of an ar­ray of cru­cial sys­tems that had been func­tion­ing un­re­li­ably be­fore the blowout.

Wil­liams told the panel that he un­der­stood the rig had been op­er­at­ing with the gas alarm sys­tem in “in­hib­ited” mode for a year to pre­vent false alarms from dis­turb­ing the crew.

He said that he re­ported the alarm sys­tem’s sta­tus to su­per­vi­sors and that they in­formed him that or­ders were to keep it that way.

Wil­liams said the ex­pla­na­tion he got was that the lead­er­ship of the rig didn’t want crew mem­bers need­lessly awak­ened in the mid­dle of the night.

“They did not want peo­ple woke up at 3 a.m. from false alarms,” Wil­liams said.

Con­se­quently, the alarm didn’t sound dur­ing the April 20 emer­gency, leav­ing work­ers to re­lay in­for­ma­tion through the loud­speaker

Con­tin­ued from A sys­tem. Though it isn’t known whether it would have saved the 11 work­ers who died in the dis­as­ter, the lack of a fully func­tion­ing alarm ham­pered the ef­fort to safely evac­u­ate the rig, Wil­liams said.

If the safety sys­tem was dis­abled, it wouldn’t have been a unique event. Records of fed­eral en­force­ment ac­tions re­viewed by The Washington Post show that in case af­ter case, rig op­er­a­tors paid fines for al­legedly by­pass­ing safety sys­tems that could im­pede rou­tine op­er­a­tions.

Ear­lier in the drilling op­er­a­tion, one of the pan­els that con­trolled the blowout pre­ven­ter — the last line of de­fense against a gusher — had been placed in by­pass mode to work around a mal­func­tion, Wil­liams said.

The drilling rig was owned by Transocean, the com­pany that em­ploys Wil­liams, and was op­er­at­ing un­der con­tract to BP.

Transocean said in a state­ment that the Deep­wa­ter Hori­zon’s gen­eral alarm sys­tem was con­trolled by a per­son on the bridge “to pre­vent the gen­eral alarm from sound­ing un­nec­es­sar­ily.” Transocean pro­vided part of an April in­spec­tion re­port that found “no (gas) de­tec­tors ei­ther in fault or in­hib­ited con­di­tion, other than units be­ing ser­viced.”

Wil­liams also tes­ti­fied that an­other Transocean of­fi­cial had turned a crit­i­cal sys­tem for re­mov­ing dan­ger­ous gas from the drilling shack to “by­pass mode.” When Wil­liams ques­tioned that de­ci­sion, he said he was rep­ri­manded.

“No, the damn thing’s been in by­pass for five years,” he re­called be­ing told by Mark Hay, the sub­sea su­per­vi­sor. “Why’d you even mess with it?”

Wil­liams re­called that Hay added, “The en­tire fleet runs them in ‘by­pass.’”

An at­tor­ney for BP, Richard God­frey, added to the pic­ture by read­ing from a Septem­ber 2009 BP au­dit dur­ing his ques­tion­ing of Wil­liams.

He read a litany of find­ings that in­cluded prob­lems with bilge pumps, cool­ing pumps, an alarm sys­tem re­lated to the rig’s hos­pi­tal and an emer- gency shut­down panel on the bridge.

Al­to­gether, the Septem­ber au­dit iden­ti­fied 390 is­sues that needed ad­dress­ing, God­frey said.

Ev­ery mem­ber of the Deep­wa­ter Hori­zon crew had the author­ity to stop op­er­a­tions if they had safety con­cerns. De­spite his un­ease, Wil­liams said he never ex­er­cised that power. In days of tes­ti­mony here by a pa­rade of wit­nesses, that has been a re­cur­ring theme.

Ques­tioned by Transocean lawyer Ed­ward Kohnke, Wil­liams said he has filed a law­suit over the dis­as­ter.

Wil­liams also said that when he gave a state­ment in the pres­ence of the Transocean lawyer be­fore re­tain­ing a lawyer of his own and fil­ing suit, he didn’t men­tion the prob­lems he dis­cussed at Fri­day’s hear­ing.

The Coast Guard and the Bureau of Ocean En­ergy Man­age­ment, Reg­u­la­tion and En­force­ment, un­til re­cently called the Min­er­als Man­age­ment Ser­vice, are con­duct­ing the hear­ing.

In other tes­ti­mony Fri­day, an ex­pert con­sul­tant to the in­ves­ti­gat­ing board said that based on avail­able data, it ap­peared that the Deep­wa­ter Hori­zon con­ducted four faulty in­tegrity tests on the well in the hours be­fore the blowout.

The fact that the test was ap- par­ently at­tempted four times in­di­cates that some­one on the rig was concerned, said John Smith, an as­so­ci­ate pro­fes­sor of petroleum en­gi­neer­ing at Louisiana State Uni­ver­sity and a con­sul­tant to the board.

“None of the four tests were an ac­cept­able test,” Smith said.

Ap­par­ently, when BP con­cluded the tests, hy­dro­car­bons were al­ready flow­ing up the well, said Smith, an in­dus­try vet­eran.

Go­ing on the as­sump­tion that at least one of the tests was suc­cess­ful, BP pre­pared to wrap up its work on the well by re­mov­ing heavy drilling fluid from the hole. The fluid serves as a damper on the well, and re­mov­ing it elim­i­nated a coun­ter­weight to a po­ten­tial gusher.

Dave Martin

A boat drops off dirty oil re­ten­tion boom Fri­day at a stag­ing area in Grand Isle, La. Trop­i­cal de­pres­sion Bon­nie is ex­pected to make land­fall some­time Satur­day along the Louisiana coast.

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