Derick E. Hingle/Bloomberg News
The company that owned the oil rig that exploded in the Gulf of Mexico in April had widespread safety concerns about several of its other rigs in the gulf, and a month before the disaster it commissioned a broad review of the safety culture of the company’s North American operations, according to confidential internal reports.
In response to “a series of serious accidents and near-hits within the global organization,” Transocean, the world’s largest offshore drillingcompany, commissioned the risk management company Lloyd’s Register to investigate its Houston headquarters and three other gulf rigs besides the Deepwater Horizon to assess its safety culture.
The confidential internal reports, obtained by The New York Times, offer an unusually candid view of safety and maintenance concerns within the world’s largest offshore drilling company, and they indicate that the problems highlighted in earlier reports provided to The Times about the Deepwater Horizon were not limited to that rig, which exploded on April 20, leading to an oil spill that is estimated to have poured at least four million barrels of oil into the gulf.
Transocean has 14 rigs now operating in the Gulf of Mexico, and 139 worldwide, and these documents raise concerns about locations beyond Deepwater Horizon, especially the three additional gulf rigs that were recently investigated. In fact, one of those rigs is being leased by BPto drill one of the two relief wells near the Deepwater Horizon site.
The new documents also shed light on one of the lingering mysteries of the disaster: why the rig sank. They indicate that there were problems with the Deepwater Horizon’s ballast system that was responsible for keeping the rig afloat and stable. If the rig had not sunk, the leak might not have occurred. Federal investigators have questioned whether deferred maintenance and other factors had played a role in the sinking of the rig.
A previous set of worker-safety reports provided to The Times were specific to the Deepwater Horizon. The new documents draw from analyses of three other rigs in the gulf and attempt to provide an overview for the entire North American division of the Transocean fleet.
The safety concerns cited in the company’s assessment of its North American division are supplemented by newly released internal reports concerning the Deepwater Horizon’s equipment. These equipment reports identify dozens of deficiencies, including some relating to the rig’s blowout preventer, and some that are categorized as “critical equipment items that may lead to loss of life, serious injury or environmental damage as a result of inadequate use and/or failure of equipment.”
“Without a doubt, previous incidents and near-hits experienced throughout the organization were as a result of multiple causes and many contributory factors,” said the summary report, which gave an overview of the company’s North American Division and draws from investigations of Transocean’s Marianas, Discoverer Clear Leader, GSF Development Driller II and Deepwater Horizon drilling rigs.
This is not the first report of the Deepwater Horizon experiencing problems with its ballast system. In May 2008, Transocean was forced to evacuate more than 70 workers after problems with the ballast system flooded part of the rig, causing it to list to its side, federal records show.
A lack of hands-on experience for workers and managers has contributed to safety concerns at the company, and a stifling bureaucracy imposed by onshore management has led to widespread resentment among rig workers, the investigators found.
Nearly 40 percent of workers interviewed on the four rigs said that past problems were typically investigated by company officials strictly to attribute blame.
“It ticks me off when someone fails or has an incident; they focus on the paper rather than the process that was gone through,” said a worker from the Discoverer Clear Leader.
Another worker on Transocean’s Marianas rig said that the safety manual seemed to be “written for the courtroom, not the oil field.”
The reports are likely to broaden the discussion of blame for the April 20 explosion, which killed 11 workers. BP, which was leasing the Deepwater Horizon from Transocean at the time of the explosion, has been under the harshest glare for its role, but the Justice Department has said that its criminal investigation of the disaster will look at the role of the many companies involved.
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