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Oil rig’s key data missing

Sea birds roost at Breton National Wildlife Reserve in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana Thursday. The island is surrounded by booms in a attempt to protect the reserve from the oil spill.  (Associated Press)
Sea birds roost at Breton National Wildlife Reserve in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana Thursday. The island is surrounded by booms in a attempt to protect the reserve from the oil spill. (Associated Press)

Seven hours worth of log before explosion can’t be found

A “black box” can reveal why an airplane crashed or how fast a car was going in the instant before an accident. Yet there are no records of a critical safety test supposedly performed during the fateful hours before the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico.

They went down with the rig.

While some data were being transmitted to shore for safekeeping right up until the April 20 blast, officials from Transocean, the rig owner, told Congress that the last seven hours of its data are missing and that all written logs were lost in the explosion.

The gap poses a mystery for investigators: What decisions were made – and what warnings might have been ignored? Earlier tests, which suggested that explosive gas was leaking from the mile-deep well, were preserved.

“There is some delay in the replication of our data, so our operational data, our sequence of events ends at 3 o’clock in the afternoon on the 20th,” Steven Newman, president and CEO of Transocean Ltd, told a Senate panel. The rig blew up at 10 p.m., killing 11 workers and unleashing a gusher that has spewed millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf.

Houston attorney Tony Buzbee, who represents several rig workers involved in the accident, questioned whether what he called “the phantom test” was even performed.

“I can just tell you that the Halliburton hands were scratching their heads,” said Buzbee, whose clients include one of the Halliburton crew members responsible for cementing the well to prepare for moving the drilling rig to another site.

Buzbee said that when Halliburton showed BP PLC and Transocean officials the results of the pressure tests that suggested gas was leaking, the rig workers were put on “standby.” BP is the rig operator and leaseholder.

Buzbee said one of his clients told him the “Transocean and BP company people got their heads together,” and 40 minutes later gave the green light.

The attorney said the Halliburton crew members were not shown any new test results.

“The facts are as they are,” Buzbee said. “The rig is $500,000 a day. There are bonuses for finishing early.”

None of the three companies would comment Thursday on whether any data or test results were purposely not sent to shore, or on exactly who made the final decision to continue the operations that day.

Meanwhile, out in the Gulf, BP settled on its next attempt to cut down on the spill: Undersea robots will try to thread a small tube into the jagged pipe that’s leaking on the sea floor. The tube, which will suck crude to a ship on the surface, will be surrounded by a stopper to keep oil from leaking into the water.

BP said it wasn’t sure how much of the roughly 210,000 gallons leaking daily would be captured by the improvised device.

If that doesn’t work, engineers can still attempt to use a “top hat” box now on the sea floor to cover the leak and siphon the oil to the surface. They also might plug the leak with golf balls and other debris – a so-called “junk shot.”

Details of a likely blowout scenario emerged this week for the first time from congressional and administrative hearings. They suggest there were both crew mistakes and equipment breakdowns at key points the day of the explosion.

Rigs like Deepwater Horizon keep a daily drilling report. It is the version of that report given to Congress that cuts off at 3 p.m.

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