Subpoenas Upheld in Gulf Oil Spill Probe

NEW ORLEANS (CN) – A handful of administrative subpoenas issued by the federal agency investigating the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill are allowed to stand, the 5th Circuit ruled Thursday.
     Transocean Deepwater Drilling challenged the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board’s authority to investigate the disaster that killed 11 and dumped millions of barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico.
     The board issued five administrative subpoenas as part of their ongoing investigation of hazardous chemicals released into the air after the April 20, 2010 explosion.
     The Chemical Safety Board sought company records, including Transocean’s internal investigation into the explosion that triggered the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history.
     In a 2-1 decision, the 5th Circuit upheld enforcement of the subpoenas, finding the board had a right to investigate.
     “Although Transocean argues that the primary environmental disaster resulting from the Macondo well incident was the massive oil spill, it also concedes in its brief that the blowout, explosion, and fire, followed by the collapse of the Deepwater Horizon, involved the release of airborne gases. That release was the triggering of the CSB’s authority to investigate,” the majority wrote.
     Transocean argued that the National Travel Safety Board should be the sole investigating body since “the disaster was related to transportation because the Deepwater Horizon was a vessel in navigation.”
     But the majority of the appeals court held that because the Deepwater Horizon had been physically attached to the seabed months before the blowout, it was not transportation-related.
     “Merely because a disaster involves a vessel does not mean that the disaster was necessarily related to transportation. Although the drilling unit may have been capable of transportation, it was not involved in transporting either individuals or property at the time of the blowout, explosion, and fire,” Judges Thomas Reavley and James Graves wrote for the majority.
     Judge Edith Jones dissented.
     “This is the first time, in twenty years after CSB was ordained, that the agency has sought to investigate in connection with an offshore oil spill. The majority’s interpretation of the Clean Air Act disregards the plain meaning of words and grammar and the most fundamental maritime concept, which is the definition of a vessel,” Jones wrote in dissent.
     She agreed with Transocean’s position that the NTSB should have led the investigation because the vessel was “not a stationary source” and that the CBS is excluded from investigating marine oil spills.

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