‘This Thing Could Wipe Us Out,’|Leading Louisiana Ecologist Says

     KENNER, La. (CN) – Tighter rules for monitoring deepwater drilling safety systems were proposed 9 years ago but never adopted, according to testimony Wednesday in the second day of federal hearings on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig catastrophe. Mike Saucier, a Minerals Management Service official, said new rules requiring secondary control systems for blowout preventers were written in 2001, but MMS upper management in Washington never approved the regulations. “As far as I know, they’re still up in headquarters,” Saucier said.

     Saucier said private industry has been left to monitor its own drilling, and there is no government oversight on the design of blowout preventers, the heaps of valves and slicing rams that sit on the ocean floor and are supposed to be the end-all defense against the sort of oil-well blowout that happened April 20 under the Deepwater Horizon.
     More than 5 million gallons of crude oil have gushed from the broken well into the Gulf of Mexico. The fly-by-night fixes considered by BP and others have served as fodder for jokes: to stuff the broken well with used tire scrap material and golf balls and clog it like a toilet, or to cap the leaking pipes with a “top hat” and siphon the oil to barges above. Still, the sober fact remains: If last-ditch efforts to cap the leaking well fail, the oil will continue to gush for a projected three months, until a second well to alleviate the pressure can be drilled.
     Coast Guard Capt. Hung Nguyen, co-chairman of the Joint Coast Guard-Minerals Management Service inquiry panel, appeared frustrated listening to Saucier’s testimony.
     “So MMS approves the design of the well, but they don’t check what type of pipe is used,” Nguyen said. “And we have a study some time ago about whether a shear ram would cut a certain pipe, but we don’t know what was installed here. I don’t understand that.”
     Tougher drilling regulations may not have prevented the disaster. Saucier said the Deepwater Horizon’s drilling operations had several secondary control systems for the blowout preventer, but none activated the shut-off mechanisms during the April 20 explosion.
     Saucier said the Deepwater Horizon had a dead man’s switch, an emergency disconnect system that kicks in if the connection with the subsea riser is lost, including a robotic submarine to manually activate shut-off rams and valves.
     He said 16 other rigs are drilling in the Gulf of Mexico in depths like that of the Deepwater Horizon: below 5,000 feet. He said that after the accident each of those rigs was inspected and all were found to have backup blowout preventer activation systems.
     Saucier said the American Petroleum Institute sets standards for blowout preventers, but he didn’t know whether anyone monitors those standards. No government certification is required for blowout preventers or drill operators. The MMS sends well drill operators “notices to lessees,” Saucier said, but no enforcement action is taken.
     “So we have self-certification of critical equipment, and safety notices that are not enforceable,” Nguyen said.
     An attorney for the Deepwater Horizon’s operator, Transocean, said that even without outside monitoring, crews aboard a vessel want equipment to perform properly.
      “It’s in their interest to perform these tests completely because if they cut corners, they are the corners being cut,” said Ned Kohnke.
     Other issues of equipment oversight were addressed by the investigative committee Wednesday, as were legal issues related to crewmembers rescued from the Deepwater Horizon.
     Also Wednesday, the Times-Picayune published a McClatchy Newspaper report that federal investigators are likely to file criminal charges against at least one of the companies involved in the oil spill. The article quoted David M. Uhlmann, for 7 years the head of the Justice Department’s environmental crimes section, under the Clinton and Bush administrations.
      “It’s very likely that there will be at least some criminal charges brought,” Uhlmann said.
     But for coastal Louisianans, issues of criminality and culpability were secondary to the pressing issue of how to stop the oil, wetlands protection, and the side effects of chemical dispersants showered daily over the tremendous oil slick.
     State Sen. A.G. Crowe, R-Slidell, released a letter on Tuesday raising concerns about the damage dispersants may have on people, wildlife and fisheries. Crowe asked Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell to file a lawsuit to stop BP from using the chemical to thin the oil slick.
     Oil already has shown up on the Louisiana coast. Coast Guard data indicate that Alabama and Mississippi have deployed enough plastic booms to cover their coasts, while only about one-fifth of the part of Louisiana’s coast threatened by oil contamination has been covered.
     St. Bernard Parish President Craig Taffaro said last week that his parish is in “imminent threat mode.”
     “So if boom is being directed to Alabama, Florida, where there’s not a threat, we ask that you send the boom here,” Taffaro said.
     Speaking on WWL radio Wednesday, Dr. Sherwood Gagliano, president of Coastal Environments, a Baton Rouge-based group of environmental scientists, said the Delta Plain of the Mississippi River is a “magic place.”
     Hailed as “Father of the Louisiana Coastal Restoration Movement,” Gagliano has spent years studying Louisiana’s fragile coastline.
     “The estuaries are the nurseries; they are the fertile ground … And I don’t know if everyone understands this,” Gagliano said, “just how amazingly spectacular the Deltaic Plain is.”
     The Mississippi River Delta – Louisiana’s vast coastline now facing the threat of oil saturation – comprises 3 million acres of coastal wetlands and provides 16 percent of U.S. fisheries, including shrimp, crabs, crawfish, oyster beds, clam beds, fish spawning and nursery habitats for marine and estuarine species, sea turtle nesting sites, and is host to 70 percent of migratory birds in all of North America.
     And 18 percent of the oil supply in the U.S. comes from the Delta.
     “Do I see an irony here?” Dr. Gagliano said, in response to a question about his 40 years of saying that Louisiana wetlands are Louisiana culture.
     “Yeah, I see an irony. The irony is, we’ve provided resources to the rest of the U.S. forever. And now this thing is happening, and it’s – well, this thing could wipe us out.”
     Investigative hearings are to resume on May 25.

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