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