BP testimony: Officials knew of key safety problem on rig

BP officials knew about a problem on a crucial well safety device at least three months before the catastrophic April 20 explosion in the Gulf of Mexico but failed to repair it, according to testimony Tuesday from the company’s well manager.

Ronald Sepulvado testified that he was aware of a leak on a control pod atop the well’s blowout preventer and notified his supervisor in Houston about the problem, which Sepulvado didn’t consider crucial. The 450-ton hydraulic device, designed to prevent gas or oil from blasting out of the drill hole, failed during the disaster, which killed 11 men on the Deepwater Horizon rig and set off the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history.

Investigators said BP did not disclose the matter to the appropriate federal agency and failed to suspend drilling operations until the problem was resolved, as required by law.

“I assumed everything was OK because I reported it to the team leader and he should have reported it,” Sepulvado said.

As drilling operations on the Deepwater Horizon came under scrutiny again at a Coast Guard- Interior Department hearing in a New Orleans suburb, a published report in London said that BP Chief Executive Tony Hayward was planning to step down within the next 10 weeks.

The report in the Times of London, citing unnamed sources, said there was a “growing expectation” Hayward would announce his departure in late August or September.

A BP executive in the U.S., who asked to remain anonymous when discussing internal company affairs, told the Los Angeles Times, “It’s likely he is going to be stepping down.”

Robert Wine, a spokesman for BP in London, said in a statement that Hayward “remains CEO and has full support of the board.”

As cleanup operations continued Tuesday, BP was allowed to keep in place for another day the well cap that has stopped oil from gushing into the water.

The government and BP are closely watching to ensure that the cap doesn’t exacerbate any oil leaks that may exist in the well’s underground pipes. That scenario could lead to a network of seeps in the ocean floor, making the disaster much harder, if not impossible, to manage.

As the testing continues, BP is working on a plan that would involve pumping heavy drilling mud through the cap to force the oil downward. BP Senior Vice President Kent Wells said Tuesday that the company would decide within the next two days whether to proceed with the tactic.

Even if the procedure is carried out, BP would still plug the well from the bottom, using a relief well that should be completed in August. But a successful kill from above could aid the effort at the well bottom, about 13,000 feet below the seafloor.

Testimony during the second day of an investigative hearing in Louisiana revealed safety and maintenance discrepancies on the Deepwater Horizon going back years.

Sepulvado was hit with a barrage of questions regarding an April 18 report prepared by Halliburton, the company contracted to cement the well casings into place and plug the well, which predicted the then-current BP well design could risk “severe” gas flow problems.

The design was altered and Halliburton later reported a successful cement job.

Two BP maintenance audits from February and March indicated a number of mechanical problems on the rig, including an engine that was out of operation, a thruster that was not running and the leak in the blowout preventer.

The audits noted that the due date for inspection of the blowout preventer had passed, according to panel member Jason Mathews. Sepulvado testified he was unaware that the manufacturer required testing every five years. The device had not been inspected since 2000, federal investigators said.

Sepulvado also testified that a well circulation test, known as a bottoms-up test, was not conducted. The procedure determines if there is gas in the drilling hole and helps ready the bore hole for cementing. His testimony reinforces similar statements from the rig manager during a previous hearing.

In addition, Sepulvado said the well was losing mud, or drilling fluids, and a company was hired to test the integrity of the cement seals only to be ordered off the rig the morning of the explosion, without conducting the test.

Lawyers representing the various contractors asked why certain safety and diagnostic tests were not undertaken. Two of the day’s scheduled witnesses could have shed light on the issues, but neither testified. Donald Vidrine and Robert Kaluza — both BP managers — did not appear. Vidrine presented a medical excuse, his second, and Kaluza exercised his 5th Amendment right not to incriminate himself.

A third day of testimony was canceled after lawyers cited several reasons why they could not proceed.

In Washington, two Interior Department secretaries who served under President George W. Bush defended their record of promoting offshore drilling. Testifying before a congressional committee investigating the spill, Gale Norton said that “if regulations on the books and industry best practices had been followed properly, there may not have been a blowout.”

Her successor, Dirk Kempthorne, told the House Energy and Commerce Committee that during a time of gas price increases, members of Congress asked him why the department wasn’t doing more to expand energy exploration.

Democrats cited the pro-drilling bent of the energy task force headed by former Vice President Dick Cheney, accusing the Bush administration of pursuing a policy of “more drilling first, safety second.”

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told the committee that there were “corners that were cut” by BP. But he also said that the “prior administration and this administration have not done as much as we could have done relative to making sure that there was safer production in the outer continental shelf.”

Times staff writers Bettina Boxall, Nathan Olivarez-Giles and Ron White in Los Angeles, Richard Fausset in Atlanta and Richard Simon in Washington contributed to this report.