Rig owner won’t turn over some records in spill review, panel says

Transocean calls request too cumbersome

Coast Guard Captain Hung Nguyen (right) said the panel has been unable to get a specific Transocean manager to testify. Coast Guard Captain Hung Nguyen (right) said the panel has been unable to get a specific Transocean manager to testify. (Gerald Herbert/Associated Press)
By Harry R. Weber
Associated Press / October 6, 2010

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METAIRIE, La. — Members of a federal panel investigating the cause of the Gulf of Mexico rig explosion and oil spill and how to improve safety and oversight accused rig owner Transocean yesterday of thwarting their efforts to get to critical documents and a witness.

The cochairman of the panel, US Coast Guard Captain Hung Nguyen, told a packed hearing room in a New Orleans suburb that members have been trying for two months to get Transocean to turn over materials related to its compliance with international safety management codes.

Nguyen said the panel also has been unable to get a specific Transocean manager to testify about safety.

Transocean lawyers said the document request is too cumbersome. They said whether the witness testifies isn’t within their control.

Nguyen said one of the key elements the panel has been trying to analyze is the safety culture at the companies involved in the April 20 disaster, including Transocean. He said the panel will have to make conclusions and recommendations whether or not Transocean supplies the information, so he encouraged them to comply.

“We did issue two subpoenas for the same thing. Each time we were told it was irrelevant and burdensome,’’ Nguyen said. “If they are burdensome, that means there is something going on with your safety management system.’’

Another panel member, Coast Guard Captain Mark Higgins, said the board has been “thwarted in some respect’’ in getting to the witness that members want to question.

“I would encourage you to look at this as an opportunity to disprove what we have seen through this small window as to the culture at Transocean,’’ Higgins said.

Transocean lawyer Ned Kohnke said the company has acted in good faith and produced everything it believes it should. He said the panel has the right to go to court to enforce the subpoena if it wants.

“How you can say we are thwarting is beyond me,’’ Kohnke said. He accused the board of making improper conclusions, not following its own rules of procedure, and not asking questions properly of other witnesses who have testified.

The joint US Coast Guard-Bureau of Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement investigative panel is holding its fifth series of hearings this week.

Earlier yesterday, a Transocean official testified that water poured onto the burning rig after the explosion was meant to keep the vessel cool so it could be stabilized, not to put out the fire.

Robert McKechnie, a director in Transocean’s engineering and technical support group, told the panel that he believes there was no way to put out the fire with water alone, so the goal was to maintain the integrity of the structure to give officials the best chance of bringing the ruptured undersea oil well under control.

Eleven workers were killed, and 206 million gallons of oil spewed from the well before it was capped three months later, according to federal estimates.

In other developments, President Obama signed an executive order establishing a Gulf Coast Restoration Task Force. The panel, which was recommended by Navy Secretary Ray Mabus in the restoration plan he released last week, will be led by Environmental Protection Agency administrator Lisa Jackson.

Obama’s order asks the task force to issue a strategy within a year that will provide a road map for restoration efforts.

Meanwhile, the administrator of BP PLC’s $20 billion fund to compensate victims of the spill said the fund has been inundated with inflated or unsupported claims and in some cases, outright fraud — all slowing down the process of getting money to people who need and deserve it.

Kenneth Feinberg said more than a third of the roughly 104,000 applicants need to do more to back up their claims, and thousands of claims have no documentation at all. He added that the amount sought in some cases bears no resemblance to actual losses, such as a fisherman’s claim for $10 million “on what was obviously a legitimate claim of a few thousand dollars.’’

At the same time, hundreds of claims that were initially denied have been accepted as Feinberg adjusts rules for compensation, such as whether people need to be physically close to the spill to get paid.