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Haphazard firefighting might have sunk BP oil rig

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The Deepwater Horizon well lists into the Gulf of Mexico in April. 

Photo courtesy of ABC26.

The Coast Guard has gathered evidence it failed to follow its own firefighting policy during the Deepwater Horizon disaster and is investigating whether the chaotic spraying of tons of salt water by private boats contributed to sinking the ill-fated oil rig, according to interviews and documents.

Coast Guard officials told the Center for Public Integrity that the service does not have the expertise to fight an oil rig fire and that its response to the April 20 explosion may have broken the service’s own rules by failing to ensure a firefighting expert supervised the half-dozen private boats that answered the Deepwater Horizon’s distress call to fight the blaze.

An official maritime investigation led by Coast Guard Capt. Hung M. Nguyen in New Orleans is examining whether the salt water that was sprayed across the burning platform overran the ballast system that kept the rig upright, changing its weight distribution, and causing it to list.

“The joint investigation is absolutely looking into that, and whether it contributed to the sinking,” Capt. Ronald A. LaBrec, the Coast Guard’s chief spokesman, told the Center.

The joint investigation by the Coast Guard and the Interior Department is one of 10 formal inquiries since the offshore oil well blew out, killing 11 workers and unleashing millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico in the worst spill in U.S. history. The disaster entered its 100th day on Wednesday.

While investigators have zeroed in on a series of missteps and ignored safety warnings aboard the rig that preceded the fiery explosion April 20, the question of what caused the platform to collapse into the Gulf two days later remains unanswered and could prove vital to ongoing legal proceedings and congressional investigations.

That is because the riser pipe from which the majority of BP’s oil spewed did not start leaking until after the rig sank. Experts and some lawsuits have openly tied the sinking of the drilling vessel to the severity of the leak.

The Coast Guard’s official maritime rescue manual — updated just seven months before the BP accident — recommends Guard personnel avoid participating in firefighting aboard a rig. Instead, the manual requires Coast Guard responders to set up an “Incident Command System” and assign an expert, such as a fire marshal, to lead the efforts to extinguish the blaze.

“If the Incident Command System (ICS) structure is used in responding to incidents involving fires on vessels or at waterfront facilities, a firefighting group should be established to coordinate local authorities responsible for fighting the fires,” the September 2009 manual states.

“This should be coordinated prior to an incident,” the manual adds.

The guidelines stress that Guard personnel are not to “actively engage in firefighting except in support of a regular firefighting agency under the supervision of a qualified fire officer .” Responsibility for fighting a fire aboard an offshore rig lies with its owner and operator, according to Coast Guard procedures that raise fresh questions about the government’s preparedness for offshore oil rig accidents. Coast Guard vessels and aircraft focus solely on searching for and rescuing human survivors. The manual gives no direction on whether water or foam should be used to fight a rig fire, a question that was brought up in the New Orleans hearings.

The explicit directions to avoid taking part in firefighting activities came just a few months before Commandant Thad Allen, who would later head the government’s response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, warned that a budget crunch was turning the Coast Guard fleet into a “hollow force.”

Testimony: Coast Guard Failed to Take Charge of Fire

Testimony at Nguyen’s closed-door hearing in New Orleans showed confusion and disarray among and the rig crew members responsible for firefighting in the hours following the oil well blow-out and explosion. This chaotic scene is tracked minute by minute in a series of Coast Guard incident logs obtained by the Center for Public Integrity for a previous story.

Although the Guard named an on-scene commander when the rig fire broke out the night of April 20, it failed to coordinate firefighting by private boats that arrived at the burning rig about 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana, the testimony indicates. And the rig’s own chief mate, who was responsible for handling emergencies, was forced to abandon the rescue of an injured worker and flee the blazing vessel after hearing a second explosion.

Kevin Robb, a Coast Guard search and rescue specialist, was the initial watch commander during the evening of the accident on Deepwater Horizon. In this video, Robb testified in New Orleans about the U.S. Coast Guard’s firefighting efforts aboard the rig. Video courtesy ABC News.

Kevin Robb, a civilian Coast Guard search and rescue specialist who acted as the first watch commander the night of the accident, testified that there was no attempt by the Coast Guard Command Center in New Orleans to designate a fire marshal to take charge.

“Did you, sir, make any efforts on that first night when you responded to the Command Center to identify a certified fire marshal to oversee the firefighting efforts?” Robb was asked at the hearing on May 11, according to a transcript reviewed by the Center.

“No, sir, I did not,” he answered.

“Are you aware of anyone else at the Coast Guard Command Center that made such an effort?

“No, sir, not to my knowledge.”

“Do you know, if at any point, over the next several days there was ever any designation of an authority, a governmental authority to oversee or coordinate the firefighting effort for this rig?” Robb was asked.

“No, sir, I don’t,” replied Robb.

In fact, Robb told the inquiry there were no Coast Guard boats on the scene capable of fighting the massive rig fire. Hours after firefighting began, the rig began listing and eventually sank at midday on April 22, Coast Guard incident logs show.

“The assets that were responding to this particular incident that night were basically search and rescue response assets. They were not firefighting assets ,” Robb testified.

The captain of the Damon B. Bankston, a private cargo ship that helped rescue 115 of the rig employees but did not fight the fire, told the inquiry neither he nor anyone else he knew coordinated the firefighting. “I think it was a general response,” Capt. Alwin Landry testified.

The captain of the ill-fated Deepwater Horizon, Curt Robert Kuchta, likewise told the inquiry that he saw no effort to coordinate the firefighting with a fire marshal. Private boats that arrived at the blaze sprayed the rig with salt water as they sought to keep the fire down.

As the fire reached a critical point, Kuchta gave the order to abandon the drilling rig.

“We had — we were dark. We had no fire pumps. There was nothing left else to do but leave the vessel — abandon,” he testified.

Rig’s Chief Mate Describes Confusion

With the Coast Guard deferring firefighting to experts aboard the rig, investigators have reconstructed what actions the fire teams took aboard the vessel. They found little command of the firefighting ships that showed up. In addition, investigators have found the vessel was unable to control its ballast system to counteract weight shifts caused by the salt water sprays once it lost power.

David Young, the Deepwater Horizon’s chief mate and leader for any fire or emergencies, said after attempting to rescue a crew member who was injured in the explosion, he, too, abandoned ship.

“I got reports that there was a man down over by the starboard crane … I got close to him,” Young testified, according to the transcript.

“I knew I couldn’t move him myself so I went to get help. I went back to the gear locker and one more person showed up there. They suited up in fire gear. At that point, I lost — it’s a little foggy from there. I kind of lost that person, but another explosion went off and we couldn’t get back to him, basically. The area was obstructed,” he said.

Young was then asked: “After the second explosion, what did you do next?”

“We basically started making our way to the boats,” he replied.

When asked about the scene on the burning rig, Young said, “I was headed in so many different directions that I really couldn’t give you timeframes, but basically just trying to get people together and organize getting people to the boats and getting as many people as we could.”

Coast Guard responders on scene were unable to communicate with private vessels responding to the fire, and instead were forced to route communications back and forth through the New Orleans regional headquarters, the testimony shows.

The hearings revealed that the Deepwater Horizon crew asked other ships in the area to help fight the blaze. “So the rig basically requested the firefighting assets?” a panel member asked Landry, to which the Bankston captain responded “Yes.” 

Four to six ships attempted to suppress the fire in the initial hours following the explosion. The testimony from the New Orleans hearings did not address how much water was pumped onto the rig by these ships. However, a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of Gulf residents and businesses harmed by the BP disaster estimates 6,000 tons of salt water per hour were sprayed onto the burning platform, enough to cause it to list and eventually sink.

The chaotic, uncoordinated response to the blaze left Nguyen, who presided over the hearing, to openly question whether it contributed to sinking the rig.

“So what we’re looking at here is maybe if there’s no coordination out there, no direction out there, we may be throwing water onto a disabled vessel that may lead to this sinking; is that correct? Is that the potential?” Nguyen asked Robb.

The Coast Guard officer pressed further. “Well, if the firefighting efforts are not coordinated and we’re putting water onto a disabled vessel, there’s the possibility that no coordinated action may result in the sinking of the vessel; is that correct, any vessel?”

“That is exactly correct,” Robb testified.

A BP spokesman declined to comment about firefighting efforts aboard the burning rig and directed questions to TransOcean Ltd., owner of the Deepwater Horizon. A representative for Transocean did not reply to repeated requests for comment.

The Marshall Islands, which as the flag state for the Deepwater Horizon is taking part in the hearings, said through a spokesman that “It would be presumptuous to offer any opinions on the casualty itself or the firefighting efforts until all of the evidence has been duly considered.”

Salt Water May Have Shifted Rig’s Ballast

Earlier this month, lawyers in New Orleans filed a class action suit against the owners of the private boats, claiming their actions in spraying water at the rig caused it to sink. Lloyd Frischhertz, one of the attorneys representing Gulf businesses and residents in the lawsuit, declined comment. But his lawsuit alleges that until the firefighting attempts began in earnest, “the vessel did not appear to be in any imminent danger of sinking .”

“With little or no time taken to assess the damage and condition of the Deepwater Horizon, Defendants’ fireboats began inundating the rig with water,” says the lawsuit filed in federal court. The rig’s “upper compartments began to fill, resulting in a shift of the center of gravity of the rig … As a result of the flooding of the rig by the fireboats, the rig began to sink.”

Offshore drilling rigs such as the Deepwater Horizon stay afloat on the water with a series of buoyancy chambers — large spaces filled with air and ocean water. The more water, or ballast, in a chamber, the lower on the water the rig will sit. An operator on the rig can adjust the water level to alter the height of the rig. If the chambers were to fill with water, the rig would be dangerously close to the ocean surface.

LaBrec, the Coast Guard spokesman, acknowledged that spraying salt water onto a burning rig can affect the ballast and that it also can cause oil to break up, spreading flames across the deck. Foam is “most effective with burning liquid but only when it can create a blanket that suffocates the fire,” he said. “In the end, it may really depend on what agent is available and in this case it appears it was salt water only.”

None of the Coast Guard ships sent to the rig were equipped to fight a rig fire and they focused instead on searching for missing rig workers, LaBrec said.

“We have expertise in fighting a fire on board our vessels, but since fire fighting is not one of our missions, we do not train for rig fires, and that has really been the responsibility of the rig owner and operator,” he said.

Officials said the inquiry led by Nguyen aims to determine whether the rig operator had adequate firefighting plans ready for a catastrophic fire aboard the offshore drilling platform, including securing access to fire-retardant foam.

“What they determine in the joint investigation will serve as a basis for reassessing the regulations and recommending changes,” LaBrec said.

Experts agreed that salt water can affect the balance of an offshore rig, but disagreed whether it mattered in the case of the Deepwater Horizon after such a severe explosion.

Benton Baugh, president of the oil engineering and manufacturing firm Radoil Inc., said it is possible that the seals that protect the rig’s buoyancy chambers failed, allowing massive amounts of seawater used on the fire to penetrate them.

“I and others have speculated that the access to the buoyancy chambers was compromised, potentially by heat, and the fire boats simply flooded the buoyancy chambers and caused the rig to sink,” he told the Center.

Paul Bommer, a 25-year veteran of the oil industry and now a senior lecturer at the University of Texas , thinks the rig was doomed by the fire, regardless of how well or poorly the firefighting was coordinated.

“I do not believe anyone thought they could put the fire out with foam or water — it was too big and too hot,” Bommer said. “Without putting the fire out — which was impossible — there was no way to save this vessel.”

Bommer says the fire “simply melted away enough of the structure and support systems” on the rig, causing the buoyancy system to fail . But, he adds, that is only true as long as the rig was connected to the riser and the well.

“If the emergency disconnect had worked or had the riser burned through at the surface [of the rig] and disconnected, the fire would have gone out,” possibly saving the ship.

Would the oil spill have been as catastrophic as it was if the rig did not sink? Baugh says it is “possible,” pointing out that “It is sure that for as long as the vessel was floating the spill was greatly minimized; it is possible that it could still be floating and there would have been only minimal pollution.”

“The riser is near neutrally buoyant with flotation except for the top telescopic joint, so this could have been possible,” he concludes.