Saturday, July 24, 2010

Deepwater Horizon: clusterfuck of irresponsibility

As we learn more and more about Deepwater Horizon, the rig that blew up in the Gulf of Mexico, unleashing economic and environmental disaster, it's becoming clearer and clearer that it was one massive clusterfuck of irresponsibility. To wit:

Long before an eruption of gas turned the Deepwater Horizon oil rig into a fireball, an alarm system designed to alert the crew and prevent combustible gases from reaching potential sources of ignition had been deliberately disabled, the former chief electronics technician on the rig testified Friday.

Michael Williams, an ex-Marine who survived the April 20 inferno by jumping from the burning rig, told a federal panel probing the disaster that the alarm system was one of an array of critical systems that had been functioning unreliably in the run-up to the blowout.

Williams told the panel that he understood that the rig had been operating with the gas alarm system in "inhibited" mode for a year to prevent false alarms from disturbing the crew.

He said the explanation he got was that the leadership of the rig did not want crew members needlessly awakened in the middle of the night. 

But wait -- there's more:

If the safety system was disabled, it would not have been a unique event. Records of federal enforcement actions reviewed by The Washington Post show that, in case after case, rig operators paid fines for allegedly bypassing safety systems that could impede routine operations.

Computers used to monitor and control drilling operations intermittently froze, to the point that the problem became known as "the blue screen of death," Williams said. Despite attempted repairs, the issue remained unresolved at the time of the blowout, Williams said.

Earlier in the drilling operation, one of the panels that controlled the blowout preventer -- the last line of defense against a gusher -- had been placed in bypass mode to work around a malfunction, Williams said.

Williams said a colleague told him that an inspection of the rig in the spring, shortly before the disaster, found extensive maintenance problems.

It is all BP's fault? Well, maybe not all -- there's a lot of blame to go around, and some of it ought to be directed at others, including Transocean, the rig's owner (and Williams's employer) -- but the takeaway here, I think, as with the disaster generally, is this: The oil industry, including its enablers in government, is simply not to be trusted. It is all about profit, obviously, but it is apparently willing to cut whatever corners it can to make as much money as possible. And, to the extent that it is trusted, we do so at enormous risk to our environment and economy, not to mention to the livelihood and well-being of all those who suffer directly or indirectly as a result of its persistent irresponsibility. The disaster in the Gulf is the most prominent example we have yet seen, irresponsibility on a huge scale prompting wide media attention, but it is hardly an isolated event.

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