NEW ORLEANS – A dispute between the owner of the oil rig that exploded and triggered the massive spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the federal government over how a key piece of evidence is being handled has been resolved, a lawyer told a federal judge Thursday.
Transocean Ltd. lawyer Kerry Miller said the government has agreed to flush the control pods on the blowout preventer to keep the device from corroding before investigators analyze it to determine why it failed to stop the massive oil spill.
"Hopefully not too much damage has been done to the pods," Miller told U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier during the first hearing for a batch of more than 300 consolidated lawsuits against Transocean, well owner BP PLC and other companies over the spill.
Because of the resolution, Barbier denied a motion by Transocean seeking to compel the government to make sure the device is properly safeguarded during the investigation.
The company said a government official on Sept. 9 directed investigators to skip a plan to flush seawater and other fluids out of the control pods. Transocean said the device could corrode and malfunction during forensic tests if the device isn't flushed.
The Justice Department said in a statement Thursday that investigators "have taken steps to ensure that it is secured and preserved to the highest evidentiary standards."
"People are trying to work cooperatively to get this job done," Justice Department attorney Mike Underhill told Barbier.
The 50-foot, 300-ton device, which was raised from the seafloor on Sept. 4, is being housed at a NASA building in New Orleans.
This wasn't the first time that Transocean and other companies being sued by victims of the Gulf spill have criticized the government's plans to preserve and test the blowout preventer. They complained unsuccessfully to the judge earlier this month about the government shipping the device to the NASA facility, which they said is not equipped to house or test it.
Transocean wanted it sent to a place in Texas with which it does business, but the judge denied the request. Transocean said it worried that delays in examining the inner workings of the device would cause components to corrode, but the government's expert dismissed those concerns.
Underhill told Barbier previously that a steel pad needed to be put in place to make sure the device doesn't collapse the dock where it's sitting, according to court records.
The April 20 rig explosion killed 11 workers and led to 206 million gallons of oil spewing from BP's undersea well.
The companies are being sued by shrimpers, commercial fishermen, charter captains, property owners, environmental groups, restaurants, hotels and others who claimed economic losses since the spill. Relatives of workers killed in the blast also have sued.
Also during Thursday's hearing, a lawyer for injured rig workers and relatives of workers killed in the blast urged Barbier to put their claims on a faster track than others spawned by the spill.
Barbier expressed sympathy but said some plaintiffs' attorneys have unrealistic expectations for how quickly claims can be tried.
Barbier is eyeing the fall of 2011 for a trial designed to assign percentages of fault to the various companies involved in the drilling project. The judge also urged all parties to consider settling or mediating some claims without a trial.
Associated Press writers Dina Cappiello in Washington and Harry Weber in New Orleans contributed to this report.