Transocean, federal safety board battle over spill subpoenas

On Feb. 27, U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier of New Orleans will begin hearing almost every aspect of the litigation arising from the Deepwater Horizon disaster, as all the federal, state and individual cases have been rolled up into a single multidistrict civil case.

But at least one other case will unfold separately in Houston.

The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Boards fight to receive accident evidence from Transocean is now scheduled for April 11 in the Houston courtroom of  U.S. District Court Judge Lee Rosenthal. Transocean had filed a motion to have the case included as part of the New Orleans litigation, but a judicial panel ruled that it would be heard separately.

At a hearing Tuesday morning, Rosenthal listened to a brief summary of the main arguments that Transocean and the federal government plan to present on whether Transocean is required to honor subpoenas it received from the safety board in late 2010 and early 2011.  CSB had requested the subpoenas as part of its investigation into the blowout and explosion on April 20, 2010 that killed 11 workers and spilled millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Transocean owned and operated the Deepwater Horizon rig that was completing BP’s Macondo well when it blew out.

In October 2011, the Justice Department filed a civil action against Transocean, alleging that the company failed to  respond properly to 38 of 39 specific demands in those subpoenas.

Kent Sullivan, a lawyer representing Transocean at the scheduling  hearing Tuesday, said the company does not believe the safety board has jurisdiction to investigate the accident.

It is an independent federal investigative agency established by Congress as part of amendments to the Clean Air Act in 1990. Its mission is to recommend measures to prevent and minimize the risk of industrial chemical accidents.

Adam Goldman, a government lawyer representing the board, argued that the release of chemicals and hazardous materials into the air from the Deepwater explosion gave the board sufficient jurisdiction.

“The possible overlap with other agencies is irrelevant for our investigation,” Goldman said. “This is an independent investigation for safety purposes.”

In past motions, Transocean has argued that the agency does not have jurisdiction over offshore accidents and oil spills. It also has argued that most of the requested documents were already made available to the Interior Department and Coast Guard as part of a separate investigation of the incident.