* Waxman's memo is here and is worth reading, as it provides detail on the various failures on the oil rig during the 24 hours prior to the explosion.‘Fundamental Mistake’ Made Before BP Oil Spill, Lawmakers Say
May 26 (Bloomberg) -- Operators on the rig that exploded over BP Plc’s oil well in the Gulf of Mexico made a “fundamental mistake” by ignoring a “very large abnormality” in a pressure test, according to a congressional memo. *
An investigator for BP told staff of the House Energy & Commerce Committee the operators erred by releasing pressure in a “kill line” while pressure in a drill pipe remained at 1,400 pounds per square inch, according to the memo dated yesterday and signed by Democratic Representatives Henry Waxman and Bart Stupak.
“BP’s investigator indicated that a ‘fundamental mistake’ may have been made here because this was an ‘indicator of a very large abnormality,’” the lawmakers wrote in the summary prepared for members of the panel, which will hold a hearing on the spill tomorrow. Waxman of California is the committee’s chairman, and Stupak of Michigan heads its investigations panel.
Warning Signs Missed
Operators on the rig missed a series of warning signs, including indications that more fluid was flowing out of the well than was being pumped in, according to the memo.
Five hours before the blast, a riser pipe had a loss of fluid, suggesting leaks. Two hours before, a system gained 15 barrels of fluid when 5 were expected, suggesting an “influx from the well,” according to the memo. Later, 41 minutes before the explosion, the pump was shut down and pressure unexpectedly increased.
The operators also had trouble with cement used to hold back gas in the well, and a step in the cementing process had to be repeated nine times, according to the memo. A test performed after cementing was complete “may not have been definitive.” The cement may have been contaminated, making it weaker than it was intended to be, according to the memo.
Given the information BP provided Waxman's committee, I think it's safe to say that criminal charges will eventually be brought. And I'm not the only one who thinks this way:
Do you think criminal charges against BP are warranted? If not, why not?
Criminal charges likely from Gulf oil spill, legal experts say
But environmental law experts say it's just a matter of time until the Justice Department steps in - if it hasn't already - to initiate a criminal inquiry and take punitive action.
"There is no question there'll be an enforcement action," said David M. Uhlmann, who headed the Justice Department's environmental crimes section for seven years during the Clinton and Bush administrations. "And, it's very likely that there will be at least some criminal charges brought."
But Uhlmann and other experts said it's likely prosecutors are already poring over evidence from the spill because under the Clean Water and Air Acts and other federal laws aimed at protecting migratory birds, an accidental oil spill of this magnitude could at least result in misdemeanor negligence charges.
And under the migratory bird regulations, prosecutors have very broad discretion. "If it happens, then you can charge it," said William Carter, a former federal prosecutor of 14 years who headed the environmental crimes section for the Los Angeles U.S. attorney's office. "There's no intent required."
He added that he agreed with Uhlmann, saying, "I would be shocked if there were no criminal charges filed in this case. There are so many things that went wrong out there."
One of the numerous factors in determining whether to file criminal charges is the adequacy of civil damages, which would provide an additional reason for prosecutors to pursue a criminal case in connection with the Gulf spill, experts said.
Prosecutors also look at the history of violations, which could also persuade them to file charges. BP, for example, has already agreed to pay millions in criminal penalties for several major incidents, including for a fatal explosion at a Texas refinery in March 2005.
BP and several of its subsidiaries agreed to pay a total of $373 million in fines for the Texas explosion, leaks of crude oil from pipelines in Alaska, and for fraud for conspiring to corner the market and manipulate the price of propane carried through Texas pipelines.
While the government will probably only bring criminal charges if there is some sort of negligence — "that's not a very high bar," Uhlmann said.