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BP safety focus was too narrow before Gulf oil spill, report says

Ramit Plushnick-masti
In an April 21, 2010 file aerial photo taken in the Gulf of Mexico more than 50 miles southeast of Venice, La., the Deepwater Horizon oil rig is seen burning. BP focused too much on the little details of personal worker safety instead of the big systemic hazards that led to the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board concluded in a presentation to be made in a hearing in Houston Tuesday July 24, 2012.
AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File

HOUSTON — BP and the drilling contractor that operated the ill-fated Deepwater Horizon were so focused on worker safety they didn't do enough to prevent major hazards, such as the 2010 rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico that killed 11 people, federal investigators said Tuesday.

The preliminary findings were presented by the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, a panel that often probes industry accidents but does not have regulatory authority.

The panel listed a litany of problems large and small they had already uncovered even though it has not received all of the records from Transocean, the drilling contractor that has challenged the board's right to investigate the offshore incident.

Among the panel's findings:

— BP and Transocean's "bridging document," designed to align safety procedures between the companies, was generic and addressed only six safety issues, but none of them dealt with major issues.

— The companies didn't have key process limits or controls for safe drilling.

— There were no written instructions for how to conduct a crucial test at the end of the cementing process, one that ultimately was misinterpreted by the crew after it was conducted several times, each time differently.

— Similar concerns about too narrow a focus on personal safety were raised after an explosion in 2005 at BP's Texas City refinery that killed 15 people, but few of the panel's recommendations were implemented on the offshore rig.

"It's always puzzled me why a company like BP ... that has major resources available ... is involved with two of the biggest accidents," said John Bresland, a member of the board who is wrapping up his second five-year term and was involved in both investigations.

The panel noted the focus on personal injuries at the expense of the larger risks associated with drilling appears to infect the entire industry.

Even after the catastrophic blowout on the Deepwater Horizon that caused the biggest offshore oil spill in U.S. history, oil executives used low personal injury rates to highlight the industry's safety record, the investigators concluded in their 50-page Power Point presentation.

The panel found that the intense focus on personal safety has led to "complacency on major hazards," panel member Cheryl MacKenzie said.

The board said there is a difference between worker safety and making sure the entire rig and well are safe, and the latter area is where BP and Transocean were "inadequate."

In a statement emailed to The Associated Press, BP spokesman Scott Dean said the company "stepped up" and developed more rigorous safety measures following the accident.

BP has "taken concrete steps to further enhance safety and risk management throughout its global operations," Dean said.

The panel also noted that BP has implemented new and better safety measures that deal with high-risk scenarios.

In its final report, the panel plans to address well bore control and other issues that proved to be problematic aboard the Deepwater Horizon and have been focal points in other investigations.

BP had the lease on the Macondo well, but the drilling rig was owned and operated by Transocean. The two companies have traded blame on what and who caused the accident.

The safety board said when BP looked at offshore endeavors it "focused on financial risks, not process safety risks." And after the Deepwater Horizon explosion, the company's own accident investigation report "recommended requiring hazard reviews of BP-owned and contracted rigs," the safety board's presentation says.

"That's very disturbing because the Gulf of Mexico belongs to the American people," said former Sen. Bob Graham, a Democrat, who co-chaired a different government oil spill investigation, one appointed by President Barack Obama.

"If that's true, it's reprehensible," Graham said.

Congressional Democrats requested the safety board investigation. The panel usually investigates deadly industrial accidents and makes recommendations but has no power to regulate, much like the National Transportation Safety Board.

The panel has been criticized for its role in investigating the disaster. Transocean resisted complying with a subpoena arguing that the spill fell outside the board's jurisdiction, which covers industrial accidents onshore. An offshore rig is an ocean-going vessel that is motionless when drilling.

The board also had to push to gain access to examine the blowout preventer, and at one point demanded that the analysis stop, saying representatives of the companies that made and maintained the 300-ton device had been getting preferential and sometimes hands-on access to it.

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Associated Press Science Writer Seth Borenstein and Associated Press writer Dina Cappiello, both in Washington, contributed to this report.

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Online:

Chemical Safety Board: http://www.csb.gov/


By RAMIT PLUSHNICK-MASTI
Associated Press