Dust-Up Clouds Spill Test
A tiny federal agency that investigates deadly chemical accidents said it was being thwarted in its probe of the Deepwater Horizon disaster by other federal agencies.
The bureaucratic dust-up between the Chemical Safety Board and the federal Joint Investigation Team probing the accident could complicate the team's final report and any federal prosecutions related to the accident.
Investigators with the Chemical Safety Board say they are being treated as a junior partner in tests that begin Monday on the Deepwater Horizon's blowout preventer. The huge stack of valves didn't shut down the BP PLC well on April 20, resulting in the massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Eleven rig workers died in the accident.
The safety board has threatened to go to court to block the tests if it isn't able to carve out a larger role for itself alongside the joint team, led by the U.S. Coast Guard and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement.
Michael Bromwich, head of the Interior Department's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, said in a recent interview the safety board has created a "disturbance and distraction."
A spokeswoman for the bureau said it had tried to cooperate with the safety board. She added that the team carefully crafted its investigative plan and test protocols "in consultation with the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation" to withstand "judicial scrutiny" if there are prosecutions.
Don Holmstrom, chief investigator for the Chemical Safety Board, said such a focus on prosecution might be unwise. "Most accidents are not caused by individual acts but safety-system deficiencies," he said, so prosecuting individuals won't stop similar accidents.
Mr. Holmstrom also said he believed other agencies were afraid his agency might reach different conclusions about the causes of the accident and what regulatory changes might be needed for offshore drilling.
The Chemical Safety Board is acting in character. With a tiny staff of 40 people and $10 million budget, it is a Chihuahua-sized federal agency. Independent of large government departments, it often has to fight for access to witnesses and evidence.
Starting last summer, safety board investigators met with representatives of the joint team, demanding equal standing. The safety board says it was largely ignored when test procedures were developed. Others involved in talks say the safety board was too confrontational.
The conflict has devolved into a squabble in recent days over who will be present when the blowout preventer is tested -- and where they will sit. The four-story blowout preventer, pulled from the ocean floor, currently rests on a National Aeronautics and Space Administration dock in Louisiana.
There were five seats in the blowout preventer test area. The joint team decided the seats would go to five blowout-preventer experts representing companies that face legal action for the disaster -- well owner BP, rig owner Transocean Ltd., blowout-preventer maker Cameron International Corp. -- and the Justice Department and plaintiffs in a spill-related class-action lawsuit.
Unhappy, the safety board complained to members of Congress, and a sixth seat was added. But the board remained upset that the joint team gave the seat to a particular safety board consultant. Mr. Holmstrom said his agency has a right to send whomever it wishes to the test.
Mr. Holmstrom said he believes the joint team wants a single report on the accident to emerge, with one set of official facts and official conclusions that can be used by prosecutors. He said the team appeared threatened by the possibility of other views, especially one that might find fault with government agencies that had oversight over offshore drilling.
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management spokeswoman said that the team has tried to "accommodate CSB's needs," but that it was "imperative the investigation . . . continue in a timely fashion in order to hold the responsible parties fully accountable for this unprecedented disaster."
In the past, the safety board has produced some reports that later were used by companies involved in accidents to defend themselves against prosecutions and fines. The safety board investigates but does not fine or prosecute individuals or companies.
Xcel Energy, for example, is using a report by the safety board to defend itself against accusations it "willfully" violated Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules in 2007, prior to an explosion at a hydroelectric plant in Colorado that killed five workers. The safety board faulted OSHA rules as vague and poorly written.
"OSHA regulations didn't provide sufficient guidance," said Cliff Stricklin, an attorney representing Xcel. "You can't willfully violate a rule that's unclear."
OSHA says the safety board's conclusion was wrong.
Rep. Henry Waxman (D., Calif.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said Tuesday that he and Rep. Bart Stupak (D., Mich.), asked the safety board to examine the root causes of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. He said he remained convinced its work could "shed further light on this catastrophic event."
Copyright (c) 2010 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.