NEW ORLEANS – Testing started Tuesday on a key piece of evidence in the investigation of what led to the massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill, federal investigators said.
The device, known as a blowout preventer, is a 300-ton steel contraption that sits at the wellhead of exploratory wells and is supposed to lock in place to prevent a spill in the case of an explosion.
It can snuff a blowout by squeezing rubber seals tightly around the pipes with up to 1 million pounds of force. If the seals fail, the blowout preventer deploys a last line of defense: a set of rams that can slice right through the pipes and cap the blowout.
Investigators testing the device that was used with BP's Macondo well will try to determine why it didn't stop the flow of oil to the sea.
The device was raised from the seafloor Sept. 4 and taken to a NASA facility in New Orleans. Testing had been delayed in part because the government and interested parties had to create procedures for the tests.
A statement from investigators did not say how long the testing would take, but previously they have indicated it would take 60 days from the time it started.
An April 20 rig explosion killed 11 workers and led to more than 200 million gallons of oil spewing from BP's undersea well.
Also in a 28-page report released Tuesday, a group of technical experts said BP and its contractors missed and ignored a series of warning signs prior to the blowout.
The independent panel convened by the National Academy of Engineering said the companies' failure to learn from "near misses" and that there was "insufficient consideration of risk" aboard the drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico. The interim findings echo much of what has been discovered in prior investigations.
There has been testimony at investigative hearings that workers tried to activate the blowout preventer with undersea robots beginning four days after the explosion and until it became clear — sometime in early May — that the device was not going to work.
The CEO of Transocean, which owned the rig that exploded and was responsible for maintaining the blowout preventer, has said the device was functioning properly in the days prior to the explosion.
The federal Joint Investigation Team says a Norwegian company has been tapped to lead the forensic testing.
BP was leasing the rig that exploded from Transocean.