WASHINGTON — A top Obama administration official on Friday rebutted claims that conflicts of interest have compromised the forensic examination of a critical piece of evidence in the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
At issue is the ongoing autopsy of the blowout preventer on Transocean’s Deepwater Horizon drilling rig that failed to stop gushing oil at BP’s Macondo well last year.
Michael Bromwich, the head of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, said the government is investigating a Transocean employee’s involvement in the testing.
The internal bureau probe is not yet complete, Bromwich said, but “based on the information gathered to date, we believe that the forensic examination of the BOP stack has not been compromised.”
Since November, the forensic analysis firm DNV Columbus has been testing the 60-foot-tall, 300-ton device at a NASA facility in New Orleansto determine why it did not stop the Macondo blowout by slashing through drill pipe and sealing off the well hole.
A Transocean employee and onetime subsea supervisor on the Deepwater Horizon, Jim Owen McWhorter, helped in retrieving the blowout preventer from the seafloor in September. During testing, McWhorter provided technical assistance – mostly by identifying different flow lines, valves, circuits and other BOP components.
In a letter to Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., Bromwich faulted DNV for violating conflict-of-interest provisions in its government contract by failing to get approval for McWhorter’s assistance.
“DNV officials admit that they were at fault for not making the disclosure required under the contract and for allowing McWhorter to work on the BOP stack without written consent of the BOEMRE contracting officer,” Bromwich said.
DNV declined to comment.
Markey, the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, who raised concerns about McWhorter’s hands-on involvement in a letter to Bromwich, said the government dropped the ball.
“While the contracting firm hired by the U.S. government may not have done its due diligence in gathering paperwork to highlight this conflict of interest, it was the government officials who were ultimately responsible for who was and was not allowed access to the central piece of evidence in this disaster,” Markey said.
Representatives from companies centrally involved in the spill as well as the Justice Department, the federal Chemical Safety Board and plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit have been on-site for the forensic examination but are barred from touching the blowout preventer.
Officials representing a joint Interior Department-Coast Guard probe of the oil spill also are there. That joint investigation was to conclude in March, but because of delays in the blowout preventer testing, finishing by then now appears unlikely.
Bromwich rejected accusations that an employee from Cameron, which made the blowout preventer, has improperly participated in the forensic work. He said that worker only connected the device to a laptop for testing with proprietary software.
Bromwich promised to step up the ocean energy bureau’s presence at the test site and stressed that the agency would look at video footage of the examination.
Bureau investigators have already interviewed 11 DNV and government employees and studied other documents as part of their conflicts-of-interest probe.
Markey suggested it may be too late.
“The consequences of this situation may not be felt for months or years, after this issue is surely brought up in court as the companies responsible for this disaster litigate blame and the billions in fines that should be paid,” Markey said. “The real losers from this lapse in judgment will likely be the American people.”