Feud among federal agencies overshadows ‘autopsy’ on blowout preventer

This report was written by Jennifer Dlouhy of the Washington bureau. Check out our complete energy coverage on FuelFix.com.

Federal investigators today signaled they will move ahead with the closed-door autopsy of a crucial piece of evidence for getting to the bottom of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, even though federal agencies are still fighting over access to the examination.

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The dispute centers on who will be inside a Louisiana testing facility when a government-contracted Norwegian classification society subjects the blowout preventer from the Deepwater Horizon to tests designed to reveal why it failed to stop flowing oil and gas at BP’s Macondo well.

The presidentially appointed Chemical Safety Board has been fighting with the leaders of a joint investigation by the Coast Guard and the Interior Department to get more access to the testing room and documentation of the examination. But the clash also involves more fundamental questions about the independence of the testing and how it should be conducted as well as the role of agencies that have been probing the disaster.

Although the dispute hasn’t been resolved, the JIT was preparing to go forward even if there isn’t a deal. It has already given itself two extra months to issue findings from the investigation.

“It is imperative that the investigation into the BP oil spill continue in a timely fashion in order to hold the responsible parties fully accountable for this unprecedented disaster,” said Eileen Angelico, a spokesperson for the joint investigative team. “The JIT has been open and transparent to interagency partners and the public. This has included cooperating with the Chemical Safety Board to accommodate (its) needs.”

The joint investigation team, which is managing the testing, has given the CSB one of six coveted seats in the room for the testing, alongside representatives from BP; rig owner Transocean; the BOP manufacturer, Cameron International; the Justice Department and the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against BP.

Leaders of the joint investigation envision the six seats will essentially be filled by a “technical working group” of experts who can advise the Norwegian firm Det Norske Veritas at critical points in the examination. To ensure a team of experts, the JIT initially planned to vet and approve the seat-fillers.

But the 20-year-old Chemical Safety Board — an independent federal agency that has probed dozens of industrial accidents — insists that it should be allowed to periodically send in one of its own investigators, in addition to its contracted expert. And CSB leaders chafe at the notion of getting prior approval for their experts, because they say that threatens the independence of the agency and its probe of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, which was requested by the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

The board also has asked for full-resolution photos from the examination every day.

The requests have added weight because some testing of the blowout preventer can only be done accurately once, said Donald Holmstrom, the CSB investigator-in-charge.

“If we’re not there and able to capture all the information we can, then we’re not going to be in a position to conduct this investigation,” Holmstrom said. “We see this as sort of the tip of the iceberg. If we can’t participate efficiently in the testing of the BOP,” then what happens with any additional testing of other equipment down the road?

The issue of the CSB’s autonomy also could loom large if the agency pursues interviews with federal regulators at the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement , which played a critical role in approving work on the Macondo project..

CSB officials have said they are hopeful that a compromise will be reached but were cool to a proposed agreement submitted by the joint investigation team yesterday. A letter outlining the terms of the deal seemed positive, but, according to board chairman Rafael Moure-Earso, it conflicted with the draft agreement.

“We believe there are significant discrepancies between the letter and the draft agreement,” Moure-Earso said. “We have serious concerns with the draft agreement, which we will attempt to resolve with the Interior Department as soon as possible.”

Although space inside the testing facility is limited, video of the forensic testing will be streamed to others on the site. And JIT officials said the group was prepared to allow the safety board’s investigators and experts inside the limited-access testing site to observe, advise and make suggestions while the work is under way. The JIT initially had decided to allow five experts in the room, before adding one more space to accommodate the CSB.

Just as the Chemical Safety Board has been reluctant to cede ground and agree to anything that compromises its independence, the joint investigation team has fought to maintain some control.

“Despite substantial accommodations, CSB has made clear that it will accept nothing less than operational control of this U.S. Coast Guard-operated test site and (the ocean energy bureau’s) contracted forensic examiner,” said a source familiar with the negotiations who was not authorized to speak on the record.

Still there are disputes about CSB’s authority. Although the House Energy and Commerce Committee asked the safety board to investigate the oil spill, a federal statute authorizing the safety board says it is not authorized to conduct investigations of “marine oil spills.” The interpretation of that is not clear.

The head of the ocean energy bureau, Michael Bromwich, said in an interview for C-SPAN’s “Newsmakers” that the CSB had acknowledged the haziness in correspondence with his agency.

The CSB has “acknowledged some doubts in the past about whether they had jursdiction to conduct such an investigation,” Bromwich said. “It is far from clear as to whether they have a strong claim to make to do an investigation here.”

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