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Transocean Denies Skimping On Deepwater Horizon Maintenance

03/31/2013 05:33 pm ET | Updated May 31, 2013

(This article is published in "The Louisiana Weekly" in the April 1, 2013 edition.)

At the Gulf spill trial last week, a Transocean executive and a company captain testified that the Swiss-based giant hadn't ignored maintenance on its Deepwater Horizon rig, countering what another witness said the week before. In a trial that began Feb. 25 without a jury, Judge Carl Barbier at U.S. District Court in New Orleans is considering blame between Transocean, BP and Halliburton in the April 20, 2010 disaster that eclipsed eleven lives. Transocean owned the Deepwater Horizon rig, BP was the Macondo leaseholder and well operator, and Halliburton was the cement contractor.

Bill Ambrose was a Houston-based director of maintenance and technical support at Transocean when the rig exploded. Asked last week about the condition of the long-gone Deepwater Horizon, he said "it's a nine-year-old rig, so it's not flawless. But overall it was in really good shape." Following the explosion, Ambrose, now a Transocean vice-president for capital projects, was tapped by the company's CEO Steven Newman to lead an internal study. Fourteen months later, his team of at least fifty people issued a report on the accident.

Asked if Transocean had any incentive to run the rig until it breaks, Ambrose said "no, none at all. We build our rigs to work 35 years to 40 years." Questioned about whether the crew might have cut corners on maintenance, he said "no. These guys lived there. There is no incentive to do that kind of thing."

His statements contrasted with the previous week's testimony from plaintiffs' expert and marine-safety specialist Geoffrey Webster, who said the rig was the victim of "reckless neglect" and should have gone into dry dock for extensive repairs.

Asked about 222 overdue maintenance tasks on the Deepwater Horizon on April 20, 2010, Ambrose said "that's actually a good number" and indicated the crew had maintenance under control. The company's internal study considered the 222 tasks and found 30 percent were waiting for parts not on the rig;10 percent were finished but not closed out in the system;10 percent were items needing repairs but not required for safe operations; and 50 percent were low-priority items.

As for spare parts, Ambrose said "there's a limited amount of space on a rig. You can't hold everything. So you have to make your choices about what you keep."

Questioned about whether the rig should have been brought ashore for repairs during its nine years of existence, Ambrose said "it's 20 plus years before you really actually have to take it to a dry dock because we have alternate inspection mechanisms." He also said the rig continually passed routine inspections by the U.S. Coast Guard, the federal Minerals Management Service and others.

Ambrose admitted that many of the rig's alarms were inhibited so that they didn't sound. His explanation for that was "if you have false alarms and too many of them, people aren't going to pay attention to that general alarm. What you want is people to get out of bed and take action when they hear it. You don't want alarm fatigue."

Ambrose said Transocean admits that its crew missed anomalies or signs that it should have acted on during the hour before the blowout. But his internal investigation found that "the precipitating cause" of the blowout was the failure of the cement, provided by Halliburton.

Asked if his study considered whether Transocean's upper managers played a role in the accident, he said "we didn't see anything with regards to the management system that had an impact."

Ambrose said of the rig's safety culture "basically, the evacuation worked, training worked, 115 people made it off. I'm proud of our crew for getting those people off that rig." Among the crew of 126, 115 reached the support-vessel Damon Bankston floating nearby. But nine Transocean and two M-I LLC employees perished that night.

On Monday, David Young, chief mate on the Deepwater Horizon on April 20, 2010 said he was responsible for the marine aspect of maintenance. He is now captain of Transocean's Discoverer Deep Seas. Young said "I think we had an excellent safety culture on the rig," and added that the goal was to get everyone back to their families. Asked whether maintenance items open on the day of the accident made the rig unsafe, he said "not in my opinion."

Young recounted events on the night of the explosion. He heard a very loud release. "So I went back to the bridge. At that time you could tell that we had a blowout. You could see out of the starboard side that we'd had a blowout. There was debris and mud and different stuff initially coming down on the rig."

Young testified "we had the ignition and the explosion. It was just kind of a big ball of fire that came out of the starboard forward side, from where I was looking. Then that initial explosion kind of backed up, and it just went into a fire in the derrick."

He continued "the fire was over our head where we were." He activated the rig's general alarm but couldn't recall if he heard it go off. For various reasons, many of the rig's alarms and sensors were inhibited.

The vessel's Captain Curt Kuchta told Young to put a hose on the fire. Young took the captain outside and showed him the conflagration. When asked if he thought the captain didn't comprehend the event's magnitude, Young said "yes, and it's my responsibility as chief mate and on-scene command to make him understand."

After that, the crew rescued injured coworkers, scrambled onto life boats and rafts and headed to safety on the Damon Bankston. Captain Kuchta dropped into the water, swam to a rescue boat and then swam off to cut a life raft free.

Two people from BP and two from Transocean were visiting the rig that night. Young said the BP visitors "were going over the fact, one of the things that they brought up in the meeting was, that they were commending us on safety and kind of telling us that it was the pride of the BP fleet, basically their appreciation for working with our rig."

Transocean rested its case Tuesday. On Wednesday, the court heard testimony from Halliburton witnesses. Nathaniel Chaisson, a Halliburton cementing engineer, monitored the cement job at BP's Macondo well. He flew to the rig on April 16, 2010, under the impression that 21 centralizers or safety devices would be used on the cement job. But BP had decided it was "going to move forward with only six," he said Wednesday. Chaisson phoned Houston-based, Halliburton technical adviser Jesse Gagliano, who seemed upset about BP's decision. Chaisson said simulations on the particular job suggested that using fewer centralizers would result in channeling. Channeling or an uneven cement flow, leaves cement linings susceptible to a breach.

Richard Strickland, Ph.D. petroleum engineer and president of the Strickland Group in Fort Worth, said Wednesday that tests done by BP petrophysicist Galina Skripnikova in early April 2010 on the Macondo well's hydrocarbon-bearing zone were superficial. On April 13, 2010, she identified the shallowest hydrocarbon-bearing sand at a measured depth of 17,803 feet. But two days after the blowout, BP put it at 17,467 feet. Strickland said BP's analysis of the hydrocarbon-bearing zone changed over time.

Judge Barbier said Tuesday he'll probably wait awhile before ruling on any sanctions against Halliburton for concealing cement at its Broussard, La. lab. In mid-March, Halliburton disclosed that cement from BP's Kodiak well, some of which is believed to have been used at the Macondo well and in that case should have be turned over under subpoenas, was stored in Broussard.

The spill trial adjourned late Wednesday and is scheduled to resume Tuesday after an Easter break. Halliburton plans to call Jesse Gagliano as a witness early Tuesday. Once Halliburton has rested its case, BP is expected to start calling its long list of witnesses. BP attorneys have said they're willing to trim their witnesses to avoid duplication and save the court time. The trial could wind down in late April, barring a settlement before then. end