Fred Bartlit Jr., chief investigator of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling, goes through a detailed presentation of the operation of an offshore oil rig, as the panel holds a public hearing in Washington, Monday. (AP Photo)
WASHINGTON (AP) â€” The BP oil rig explosion and spill wasnâ€™t about anyone purposely trading money for safety, investigators on a special presidential commission said Monday. Instead it was more about seemingly acceptable risks adding up to disaster. Investigators at the commissionâ€™s hearing outlined more than a dozen decisions that at the time seemed questionable but also explainable.
It was how those cascaded and crashed together that fueled catastrophe. Yet there was no evidence of a conscious decision on the BP rig to do things on the cheap at the expense of safety, investigators stressed several times. Likewise, representatives of the companies involved in the disaster denied that corners were cut because of cost. Critics â€” including a top academic, a congressman and people on the temporarily polluted Bayou â€” are balking at what they see as something close to a free pass for BPâ€™s history of cost cutting.
In the first nonpolitical and independent investigation of the disaster, commission officials say they arenâ€™t excusing BP at all, but pointing out there was no clear single decision that came down solely to money. â€œAnytime you are talking about a million and a half dollars a day, money enters in. All I am saying is human beings did not sit there and sell safety down the river for dollars on the rig that night,â€ said commission chief attorney Fred H. Bartlit Jr. That doesnâ€™t mean that a general culture of cost cutting wasnâ€™t an issue, added commission co-chairman Bob Graham, the former Florida senator and governor.
Graham wrapped up the day by saying he was worried that there was â€œa compulsion to get this rig completed in that April 19-April 20 timetable.â€ And panel co-chairman William K. Reilly said in an interview after the hearing that BP does deserve a good share of blame: â€œA lot of the key decisions were in fact made by BP.â€ He said that while it might look as if the commission wasnâ€™t concerned about the culture of cost cutting at BP, it will address that broader corporate problem in the future. Monday was more about what immediately led to the disaster. H alliburton Co., which had the crucial job of cementing the well, was on the hotseat as much as BP on Monday, clashing more often with investigators than the oil company.
And the commission still has not dealt with the blowout preventer, a key instrument, because it is still being examined. No written report was issued on Monday.
Bartlit, the panelâ€™s chief investigator, revealed in a letter last month that testing on cement mixtures similar to those used in the well showed that the formula was unstable before the blowout, but BP and Halliburton used it anyway.
Bartlit said the companies should have reconsidered the type of cement used in the well. Cement is an essential barrier to preventing blowouts. Led by commission investigators, BP Vice President Mark Bly said Halliburton of ficials were slow about testing and results. Several times during the hearing, BP and commission investigators found themselves agreeing on blaming Halliburton.
So far, the inquiry into the April 20 rig explosion â€” which killed 11 workers and dumped 172 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico â€” is echoing investigations into past technological disasters, such as space shuttle explosions. If there is one large problem, it is the way that all sorts of small decisions become a cascade of failures that short-circuit normal safety features.
Not everyone agrees. One of the nationâ€™s top technological disaster academics said the spill commission â€” appointed by President Barack Obama â€” was a â€œcover -upâ€ from the White House. Charles Perrow, a Yale University professor who wrote the disaster sociology classic â€œNormal Accidentsâ€ said the investigation was overlooking BPâ€™s track record of disasters that have come after cost cutting.
â€œThereâ€™s a long history of dollars versus safety at this organization,â€ Perrow said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. He referred specifically to BPâ€™s 2005 Texas City oil refinery explosion in which federal officials cited a culture of cost-cutting at the expense of safety. In 2006, BPâ€™s lack of leak detection caused a massive pipeline spill, the largest on Alaskaâ€™s North Slope to date.