Deepwater Horizon's Blowout Preventer Rusts While Lawyers Argue

If you ever wanted proof that about the worst news you could ever receive is "I'm a government lawyer and I'm here to help", it would be the picture of the Deepwater Horizon's blowout preventer (BOP) rusting in the warm moist oxidizing atmosphere outside the NASA facility in New Orleans. The Joint BOEM/USCG website shows it being towed to New Orleans on September 11th. On November 11th, the Wall Street Journal reported "The BP well's blowout preventer is lifted from the Gulf of Mexico in September. It's set for tests at a Louisiana dock, starting Monday."

The decision to take the BOP to New Orleans rather than to its manufacturer's facility in Houston was made by government lawyers. The intent was to put it inside the huge hangar where the fuel tanks for the space shuttle were made, in a secure location under 24 hour guard. The problem being that no one in the government took the time to check the load carrying capacity of the dock and roads leading from the barge to the hangar. The BOP is so heavy that it exceeds that load carrying capacity so the BOP sits outside with its potentially useful evidence, such as the blind shear ram, rusting in the open air.

As the WSJ article notes, there are serious questions of trust involved. It quotes the concerns of the lead investigator for the Chemical Safety Board, Don Holmstrom.

A spokeswoman for the bureau said it had tried to cooperate with the safety board. She added that the team carefully crafted its investigative plan and test protocols "in consultation with the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation" to withstand "judicial scrutiny" if there are prosecutions. Don Holmstrom, chief investigator for the Chemical Safety Board, said such a focus on prosecution might be unwise. "Most accidents are not caused by individual acts but safety-system deficiencies," he said, so prosecuting individuals won't stop similar accidents.

Mr. Holmstrom also said he believed other agencies were afraid his agency might reach different conclusions about the causes of the accident and what regulatory changes might be needed for offshore drilling.

Given the finding of the Inspector General of the Interior Department that the recommendations of outside engineering experts did not support the drilling moratorium imposed by Sec Salazar and President Obama, the skepticism of the chief investigator of the government's own Chemical Safety Board does cause concern. No one would doubt that the CSB was effective in its investigation of BP's Texas City Refinery explosion. Their investigation recommended what became the Baker Commission report, which has been used by Congress to challenge BP's commitment to safety. The quality of their work is apparent in this six minute video describing the sequence of events at Texas City.

Underlying these challenges to the multiple Deepwater Horizon investigations and commissions is the undeniable truth that the politicians initiating the investigations also had real time input and control during the events which also need investigation, especially the containment and intervention efforts. It also is apparent that government in general, and government lawyers in particular, do not have the real world, technical expertise to get to the heart of the matter. 

This matter is archetypical of the debates over which can provide better protection for the general public: government or the private sector lawyers or engineers. Just as consumers rely on the Underwriters Laboratory (UL) label to signify electrical safety, industry relies on the American Petroleum Institute (API) for the standards and recommended practices used in the oil industry, independent quality assurance companies such as Det Norske Verite(DNV) for safety audits and the Chemical Safety Board to do accident investigation, in a manner quite similar to how the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) does airline accident investigations. The remarkable improvement in aviation safety over the decades is proof the wisdom of using knowledgeable investigators, not jackbooted political appointees such as Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Attorney General Eric Holder.
If you ever wanted proof that about the worst news you could ever receive is "I'm a government lawyer and I'm here to help", it would be the picture of the Deepwater Horizon's blowout preventer (BOP) rusting in the warm moist oxidizing atmosphere outside the NASA facility in New Orleans. The Joint BOEM/USCG website shows it being towed to New Orleans on September 11th. On November 11th, the Wall Street Journal reported "The BP well's blowout preventer is lifted from the Gulf of Mexico in September. It's set for tests at a Louisiana dock, starting Monday."

The decision to take the BOP to New Orleans rather than to its manufacturer's facility in Houston was made by government lawyers. The intent was to put it inside the huge hangar where the fuel tanks for the space shuttle were made, in a secure location under 24 hour guard. The problem being that no one in the government took the time to check the load carrying capacity of the dock and roads leading from the barge to the hangar. The BOP is so heavy that it exceeds that load carrying capacity so the BOP sits outside with its potentially useful evidence, such as the blind shear ram, rusting in the open air.

As the WSJ article notes, there are serious questions of trust involved. It quotes the concerns of the lead investigator for the Chemical Safety Board, Don Holmstrom.

A spokeswoman for the bureau said it had tried to cooperate with the safety board. She added that the team carefully crafted its investigative plan and test protocols "in consultation with the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation" to withstand "judicial scrutiny" if there are prosecutions. Don Holmstrom, chief investigator for the Chemical Safety Board, said such a focus on prosecution might be unwise. "Most accidents are not caused by individual acts but safety-system deficiencies," he said, so prosecuting individuals won't stop similar accidents.

Mr. Holmstrom also said he believed other agencies were afraid his agency might reach different conclusions about the causes of the accident and what regulatory changes might be needed for offshore drilling.

Given the finding of the Inspector General of the Interior Department that the recommendations of outside engineering experts did not support the drilling moratorium imposed by Sec Salazar and President Obama, the skepticism of the chief investigator of the government's own Chemical Safety Board does cause concern. No one would doubt that the CSB was effective in its investigation of BP's Texas City Refinery explosion. Their investigation recommended what became the Baker Commission report, which has been used by Congress to challenge BP's commitment to safety. The quality of their work is apparent in this six minute video describing the sequence of events at Texas City.

Underlying these challenges to the multiple Deepwater Horizon investigations and commissions is the undeniable truth that the politicians initiating the investigations also had real time input and control during the events which also need investigation, especially the containment and intervention efforts. It also is apparent that government in general, and government lawyers in particular, do not have the real world, technical expertise to get to the heart of the matter. 

This matter is archetypical of the debates over which can provide better protection for the general public: government or the private sector lawyers or engineers. Just as consumers rely on the Underwriters Laboratory (UL) label to signify electrical safety, industry relies on the American Petroleum Institute (API) for the standards and recommended practices used in the oil industry, independent quality assurance companies such as Det Norske Verite(DNV) for safety audits and the Chemical Safety Board to do accident investigation, in a manner quite similar to how the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) does airline accident investigations. The remarkable improvement in aviation safety over the decades is proof the wisdom of using knowledgeable investigators, not jackbooted political appointees such as Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Attorney General Eric Holder.

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