Lawmaker Questions Staffing Level Aboard BP Rig
BUSINESS JUNE 9, 2010
The chairman of a U.S. congressional committee investigating the Gulf of Mexico oil spill is questioning whether key personnel aboard the Deepwater Horizon oil rig were tired or off duty in the hours before the explosion that triggered the massive spill.
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U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall, a Democrat from West Virginia, sent a letter Monday to rig owner Transocean Ltd. asking the company to explain company records submitted to his committee that he said suggested there was "a shortage of technical personnel" on duty at the time of the explosion, which sank the rig and killed 11 workers.
Mr. Rahall is chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, one of a half-dozen U.S. congressional panels probing the circumstances surrounding the disaster.
Transocean says the rig was properly staffed.
"At the time of the accident, the Deepwater Horizon and its crew had compiled seven consecutive years of operations without a single lost-time safety incident," said a Transocean spokesman. "The vessel was properly and professionally manned; there was no shortage of technical expertise."
Testimony by some rig workers who said they were working during the hours leading up to the explosion, even though payroll records don't list them, appeared to contradict the documents cited by Mr. Rahall.
BP PLC, which had contracted the rig, didn't respond to messages seeking comment on Mr. Rahall's letter.
According to records cited by Mr. Rahall and reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, 18 Transocean personnel were listed on payroll data as working during the noon-midnight shift on April 20, when the explosion occurred. In his letter, Mr. Rahall said this was "the smallest number listed in this time period for the month of April."
For the same noon-midnight shift on the three previous days, April 17-19, 21 employees were listed as being at work, according to company documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. This compares with 23 for April 15-16; 25 for April 14; 26 for April 3-13; 27 for April 2; and 28 for April 1.
In his letter, Mr. Rahall also said information his panel had received and documents from an ongoing internal investigation by BP suggested that "inattentiveness" may have contributed to the explosion.
"I have serious questions about whether enough people were working on the night of April 20th to adequately handle the complex operations that were being performed, or if crew fatigue caused by extended shifts may have played a role," Mr. Rahall said in his letter, which was addressed to Transocean's CEO, Steven Newman.
Investigators for the Coast Guard and Minerals Management Service have separately questioned rig personnel about activities on board on the day of the explosion.
During the final few hours before the explosion, several top Transocean managers were off the rig floor, involved in meetings with visiting officials.
Jimmy Wayne Harrell, the offshore installation manager and the top-ranking Transocean official on the rig, helped give several BP and Transocean executives a two-hour tour of the Deepwater Horizon between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. Mr. Harrell testified at a Coast Guard-MMS hearing that he was concerned with certain aspects of drilling operations but said he did not spend any time monitoring the drilling operation during the afternoon because he was tending to the visiting executives. He visited the drilling area later that night. The explosion occurred just before 10 p.m.
"The tour lasted a long time, just getting everything set up, seeing what people they wanted to meet with, speak with while they were out there. It pretty much took the whole day," he testified last month.
Mr. Harrell told the investigators he felt free to break away whenever he wanted to attend to rig operations.
He denied the visits were distracting. "Not really. If it was, I would prioritize what I needed to do," he said.
Mr. Harrell has declined to comment further.
Mr. Rahall also asked Transocean in his letter for a more detailed explanation of its staffing practices during the days and hours leading up to the explosion.
Mr. Rahall said in his letter that the payroll data for April 20, the day of the explosion, showed that there was also "a shortage of technical personnel on duty, with zero engineers, electricians, mechanics or subsea supervisors listed in the report."
But testimony by Transocean personnel to the Coast Guard-MMS investigative hearing appears to contradict the records Mr. Rahall cites.
For instance, Christopher Pleasant, a Transocean subsea supervisor, testified last month that he was working the evening of the explosion. He wasn't listed as one of the 18 people on duty at the time, according to the company documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.
Other supervisors have testified that there was no reduction in work force. Chad Murray, the rig's chief electrician, told Coast Guard and MMS investigators last month that the rig had no reduction in personnel during the nearly three months of drilling.
Last month, BP representatives briefed congressional investigators on their internal investigation of the disaster. According to a memo written after the briefing by Democratic Reps. Henry Waxman of California and Bart Stupak of Michigan, BP identified several mistakes aboard the rig, including possible contamination of the cement meant to seal off the well from volatile natural gas and the apparent failure to monitor the well closely for signs that gas was leaking in.
The memo also described a breakdown in communications aboard the rig in the hours leading up to the explosion that made it tough for workers to monitor how much mud was coming out of the well—a key measure of whether gas is leaking in, according to the memo. An immense column of natural gas, erupting from the oil well, fueled the fireball that destroyed the rig.
When the memo was made public by Messrs. Waxman and Stupak, a Transocean spokesman said in response that "A well is constructed and completed the same way a house is built—at the direction of the owner and the architect. And in this case, that's BP."
—Miguel Bustillo contributed to this article.