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Gulf Oil Spill: Unanswered Questions, Fact Check

Huffington Post/AP   First Posted: 06/01/10 04:19 PM ET   Updated: 05/25/11 05:40 PM ET

WASHINGTON - The impatient nation isn't getting answers fast enough in the Gulf of Mexico oil spill disaster.

As the oil spreads, people on the Gulf Coast, in Washington and elsewhere want answers in a New York minute. But these mysteries of the deep are not yielding easily.

Over three weeks, more than a dozen congressional hearings and scores of hours of witness testimony did not get to the rupture's cause or its full effects. Many more inquiries are ahead. But then such hearings, especially in an election year, are often designed more to give lawmakers a stage to rant against a politically safe target than to find facts.

Vital clues, such as the burned-out behemoth of a rig and a safety device that was supposed to prevent such a blowout, rest under a mile of water accessible only by remote-controlled vessels. Some of the crewmen who manned the rig at the moment of crisis, including two responsible for shutting the oil flow, are dead.

Here are some of the biggest looming questions to this point and a fact check on each.

Early Warning?
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The House Energy and Commerce Committee collected 100,000 pages of documents from BP, Transocean and others, and produced evidence that the crew had hints of a developing problem on the day of the explosion: worrisome pressure readings in the pipe, which was being sealed for future oil production. This could have been a tip-off to an intrusion of methane gas.

But why? That's still an unknown.

Could the cement injected into the pipes have been deficient? Was it a mistake to replace some of the "mud" used to apply downward pressure in the pipes with lighter seawater before a final cement cap was applied?

The seawater theory appeared to gain more credence this past week at a hearing in New Orleans. According to witness statements, senior managers worried BP was "taking shortcuts" by replacing heavy drilling fluid with saltwater in the well.

Statements from oil rig workers and a congressional memo about a BP internal investigation of the blast indicated warning signs were ignored. Tests less than an hour before the blowout found a buildup of pressure indicating "a very large abnormality," BP's investigator said, according to the congressional memo.

Still, the rig team was "satisfied" that another test was successful and resumed adding the sea water, said the memo by Reps. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and Bart Stupak, D-Mich. Waxman is chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee; Stupak heads the subcommittee on oversight and investigations.

Also at the New Orleans hearing, Douglas Brown, the rig's chief mechanic, testified about what he described as a "skirmish" between the "company man" – a BP official – and three rig employees during a meeting the day of the explosion. BP owns the well; Transocean was doing the drilling.

"The driller outlined what would be taking place, but the company man stood up and said 'We'll be having some changes to that,'" Brown testified. He said the three other workers initially disagreed but "the company man said 'This is how it's going to be.'"

PHOTO CAPTION: In this May 28, 2010 photo, BP CEO Tony Hayward looks out of a helicopter window during recovery operations over the Gulf of Mexico, south of Venice, La. (AP Photo/Sean Gardner, Pool)
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