KENNER, La. – BP officials knew about a problem on a critical well safety device at least three months before the catastrophic April 20 explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, but failed to repair it, according to testimony Tuesday from the company’s well manager.
Ronald Sepulvado testified that he was aware of a leak on a control pod atop the well’s blowout preventer and notified his supervisor in Houston about the problem, which Sepulvado didn’t consider critical. The 450-ton hydraulic device, designed to prevent gas or oil from blasting out of the drill hole, failed during the disaster, which killed 11 men on the Deepwater Horizon rig and began the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history.
Investigators said BP did not disclose the matter to the appropriate federal agency and failed to suspend drilling operations until the problem was resolved, as required by law.
“I assumed everything was OK because I reported it to the team leader and he should have reported it,” Sepulvado said.
Testimony during the second day of U.S. Coast Guard-Interior Department investigative hearings in Louisiana revealed safety and maintenance discrepancies on the Deepwater Horizon, going back years.
Sepulvado was hit with a barrage of questions regarding an April 18 report prepared by Halliburton, the company contracted to cement the well casings into place and plug the well, which predicted the then-current BP well design could risk “severe” gas flow problems.
The design was altered and Halliburton later reported a successful cement job.
Two BP maintenance audits from February and March, indicated a number of mechanical problems on the rig, including an engine that was out of operation, a thruster that was not running and the leak in the blowout preventer.
The audits noted that the due date for inspection of the blowout preventer had passed, according to panel member Jason Mathews. Sepulvado testified he was unaware that the manufacturer required testing every five years. The device had not been inspected since 2000, according to federal investigators.
Sepulvado also testified that a well circulation test, known as a bottoms-up test, was not conducted. The procedure determines if there is gas in the drilling hole and helps ready the bore hole for cementing. His testimony reinforces similar statements from the rig manager during previous hearings.
In addition, Sepulvado said the well was losing mud, or drilling fluids, and a company was hired to test the integrity of the cement seals only to be ordered off the rig the morning of the explosion, without conducting the test.
Attorneys representing the various contractors asked why certain safety and diagnostic tests were not undertaken. Two of the day’s scheduled witnesses might have shed light on the issues, but neither testified. Donald Vidrine and Robert Kaluza – both BP managers – did not appear. Vidrine presented a medical excuse, his second, and Kaluza exercised his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself.
The third day of testimony was canceled after attorneys cited several reasons why they could not proceed.