GULF SPILL

Tensions between Chemical Safety Board and investigative team may be easing

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) said yesterday that it could lift an order to preserve crucial evidence from the ill-fated Deepwater Horizon oil rig within days, signaling a potential break in tensions among the teams of federal investigators probing the causes of this spring's Gulf of Mexico gusher.

CSB was created 20 years ago to conduct independent analysis of industrial chemical accidents and won national notice for its investigation of a blast that killed 15 workers at BP PLC's Texas City refinery in 2005 -- which partly motivated the request by outgoing Democratic leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee that CSB examine the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Lately, however, the safety board has faced a dispute with the federal joint investigation team (JIT) leading its own probe of the rig's demise.

CSB took issue with a plan by the JIT, which is steered by the U.S. Coast Guard and the Department of the Interior, to give the safety board one of six seats inside the room during the forensic examination of the Deepwater Horizon's blowout preventer, a key piece of equipment that failed to stop leaking oil and gas (Greenwire, Nov. 5). CSB sought permission to choose its own representative for the testing and allow that individual to communicate with its investigators, citing the need to keep its operations independent.

As part of that effort, CSB also issued a preservation order to Det Norske Veritas, the Norwegian-owned company hired to conduct forensic tests on the blowout preventer, asking it to "take special care to preserve from alteration or destruction the blowout preventer" as well as "any other tangible objects" and paper records pulled from the rig. That order, first reported by the Houston Chronicle, could be lifted soon pending a resolution of the impasse over CSB's push to maintain an inquiry independent of the JIT's.

"We are prepared to lift the DNV preservation order in the next few days (before Monday) assuming the guidelines from the Joint Investigation Team for the blowout preventer (BOP) test continue in a positive direction," CSB managing director Daniel Horowitz said in a statement late yesterday.

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Horowitz described a Wednesday meeting of technical experts planning the testing process as "positive," adding that the CSB investigator present at the talks "reports the cooperation among the groups at the meeting was excellent." CSB spokesman Sandy Gilmour said the board is "optimistic an agreement will be reached" that can preserve its independence.

Still, potential differences of opinion over CSB's jurisdiction could continue to affect the multiple federal probes. Michael Bromwich, chief of the Interior Department's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE), raised doubts that CSB has "a strong claim to make to do an investigation here" in a C-SPAN interview earlier this month, and the law that governs the safety board notes that it "shall not be authorized to investigate marine oil spills."

CSB has asserted that its authority to look at the Deepwater Horizon blast comes from the rig's status as a stationary facility. In agreeing to House Democrats' request for an inquiry, the board noted that it would exclusively evaluate the run-up to the rig's failure without undertaking "an examination of the response to the disaster" and the resulting oil spill.

CSB's preservation order also included a subpoena for documents from Det Norske Veritas, with a compliance deadline of today. In his statement, CSB's Horowitz said company officials "have indicated they will cooperate" with the subpoena.

Det Norske Veritas external affairs director Blaine Collins declined to comment on the still-pending subpoena, but said via e-mail that the preservation order would not disrupt the company's work: "We have a contract with BOEMRE and are committed to honoring all contractual terms," Collins said. "We don't anticipate any delays and we appreciate the steps that BOEMRE is taking to ensure that there is no interference."

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