Transocean ordered to turn over Deepwater Horizon docs

A federal judge on Thursday ordered Transocean to comply with federal subpoenas seeking records that could shed more light on the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster.

The decision by Houston-based U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal gave Transocean 30 days to turn over documents and other information to the Chemical Safety Board, the last major entity investigating the accident. She also ordered Transocean to pay legal costs for the United States’ winning bid to defend the subpoenas in court.

At issue are five subpoenas that the safety board issued to Transocean in 2010 and 2011 while that independent federal agency sought to learn more about the explosion of the company’s Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico. When Transocean asked the federal court to dismiss those subpoenas, the Justice Department intervened to argue on behalf of the CSB’s authority and the document requests.

Transocean previously argued that the CSB did not have authority to probe offshore accidents and oil spills, and insisted that most of the requested documents had already been provided to the Interior Department and Coast Guard as part of separate inquiries.

A Transocean spokesman did not immediately return a request for comment.

Although the federal law that established the CSB says it is not “authorized to investigate marine oil spills,” the agency had maintained that it was investigating the root causes of the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion on April 20, 2010 — not the oil spill that came afterward.

And the CSB argued that the statutory prohibition applies only to investigations of transportation-related spills, while the board’s probe focuses on what happened on the rig itself. Because the rig was connected by a riser pipe to a well in the seabed, it was effectively a stationary installation, CSB officials said.

The CSB’s Deepwater Horizon probe ran into early problems, as some potential witnesses refused to testify before the agency. The CSB also tangled with other federal agencies over access to a forensic examination of the blowout preventer exhumed from the Macondo well site.

An independent federal agency, the CSB has probed more than 50 industrial accidents, including the lethal Texas City refinery explosion in 2005.

Currently, CSB investigators are looking into the lethal explosion at a fertilizer facility in West, Texas.

The CSB recently has drawn criticism from some who say the agency is underfunded and taking too long to complete its accident investigations. For instance, the Center for Public Integrity noted that the CSB has not yet issued its report on an explosion at a Tesoro Corp. refinery in Washington state three years ago. The Environmental Protection Agency’s inspector general has launched an audit of the CSB.