METAIRIE, La. – BP interfered with critical efforts to lower an undersea robot to try to close the device that failed to stop the massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill because of concerns over heat buildup from the burning rig, a salvage firm executive said Monday. The company countered that it was trying to keep workers safe.
Doug Martin, president of Smit Salvage Americas, which was hired to help try to save the Deepwater Horizon after it exploded, told a federal investigative panel that in the hours after the April 20 disaster, he thought it was important to quickly get the robot into the water so engineers could choke off the oil. But BP officials discussed calculating how the heat from the fire would impact the boat that was to launch the robot, which Martin said he considered a waste of time.
A BP spokesman said in a statement e-mailed to The Associated Press that the company "performed critical safety calculations before deploying the ROV to ensure that this operation did not put workers in harm's way."
Martin said he thought the delay was interference by BP.
"When they wanted to calculate the heat load on the boat, I said, 'How do you know how hot the fire is?'" Martin told the joint U.S. Coast Guard-Bureau of Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement investigative panel. "I had a hard time believing there was data available at that time to do that. That's why I felt it was better just to keep the boat cool and use commonsense tools to get the ROV in the water."
Martin said several hours went by before the undersea robot was lowered into the water. Martin said he didn't arrive at a Transocean command center until seven hours after the explosion.
Martin seemed to soften his comments a bit when, under questioning from lawyers, he suggested that he was not trying to be critical of anyone.
Engineers were unable to close the so-called blowout preventer that failed to stop the spill, and the rig eventually sank. Eleven workers were killed in the rig explosion, and some 206 million gallons of oil spewed from BP PLC's undersea well, according to government estimates.
The federal panel meeting this week at a hotel near New Orleans is trying to determine the cause of the blast and massive oil spill that followed. Besides figuring out a cause, the panel, which is holding its fifth series of hearings, is examining how to improve safety and oversight.
At least one more series of hearings is expected before the panel members begin collaborating on their report.
Also at the hearings Monday, a U.S. Coast Guard official testified that the fact that more than 100 people escaped the Gulf of Mexico rig explosion alive is a sign the evacuation effort went fairly well. But oil industry partners, because of their expertise, are currently needed to help the government during such a disaster, the official said.
Except for the workers who died, the rest of the 126 people on board the rig survived.
Capt. James Hanzalik, chief of incident response for the Coast Guard's 8th District, told the investigative panel there was nothing more his agency could have done to prevent the rig from sinking.
Hanzalik also said the Coast Guard currently relies on oil industry partners for help in rescuing so many people.
"Typically we don't have the assets to do that," Hanzalik said. He added that he would expect owners and operators of vessels at sea to have their own evacuation plans.
Fighting the fire on the rig is largely the responsibility of the industry, Hanzalik said.
"We never exercised our control over the firefighting efforts," he said. "We're not trained firefighters."
Among the witnesses scheduled to testify later this week are key workers for BP and Transocean, an expert on mobile offshore drilling units, an expert on maritime alarm systems and a deepwater well equipment expert.
Perhaps the most critical testimony is expected to come from two BP officials who were familiar with the company's decision to use only six centralizers during the cementing of the well that blew out. Halliburton had recommended the use of 21 centralizers, which are devices that make sure the casing is running down the center of the well bore. If the casing is cemented off-center, there is a risk of an imperfect seal that could allow oil and gas to escape.
BP said in its internal report on the disaster that it released last month that its centralizer decision probably did not contribute to the cement's failure. But federal investigators are still asking pointed questions.
BP's well gushed for three months before being capped in July and then permanently sealed in September. The British oil giant owned the well but was leasing the rig from owner Transocean Ltd.