How the BP Disaster Was Made Worse

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BY CENTER FOR PUBLIC INTEGRITY – The Coast Guard has gathered evidence it failed to follow its own firefighting policy during the Deepwater Horizon disaster and is investigating whether the chaotic spraying of tons of salt water by private boats contributed to sinking the ill-fated oil rig, according to interviews and documents.

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Coast Guard officials told the Center for Public Integrity that the service does not have the expertise to fight an oil rig fire and that its response to the April 20 explosion may have broken the service’s own rules by failing to ensure a firefighting expert supervised the half-dozen private boats that answered the Deepwater Horizon’s distress call to fight the blaze.

An official maritime investigation led by Coast Guard Capt. Hung M. Nguyen in New Orleans is examining whether the salt water that was sprayed across the burning platform overran the ballast system that kept the rig upright, changing its weight distribution, and causing it to list.

“The joint investigation is absolutely looking into that, and whether it contributed to the sinking,” Capt. Ronald A. LaBrec, the Coast Guard’s chief spokesman, told the Center.

The joint investigation by the Coast Guard and the Interior Department is one of 10 formal inquiries since the offshore oil well blew out, killing 11 workers and unleashing millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico in the worst spill in U.S. history. The disaster entered its 100th day on Wednesday.

While investigators have zeroed in on a series of missteps and ignored safety warnings aboard the rig that preceded the fiery explosion April 20, the question of what caused the platform to collapse into the Gulf two days later remains unanswered and could prove vital to ongoing legal proceedings and congressional investigations.

That is because the riser pipe from which the majority of BP’s oil spewed did not start leaking until after the rig sank. Experts and some lawsuits have openly tied the sinking of the drilling vessel to the severity of the leak.

The Coast Guard’s official maritime rescue manual — updated just seven months before the BP accident — recommends Guard personnel avoid participating in firefighting aboard a rig. Instead, the manual requires Coast Guard responders to set up an “Incident Command System” and assign an expert, such as a fire marshal, to lead the efforts to extinguish the blaze.

“If the Incident Command System (ICS) structure is used in responding to incidents involving fires on vessels or at waterfront facilities, a firefighting group should be established to coordinate local authorities responsible for fighting the fires,” the September 2009 manual states.

“This should be coordinated prior to an incident,” the manual adds.

The guidelines stress that Guard personnel are not to “actively engage in firefighting except in support of a regular firefighting agency under the supervision of a qualified fire officer .” Responsibility for fighting a fire aboard an offshore rig lies with its owner and operator, according to Coast Guard procedures that raise fresh questions about the government’s preparedness for offshore oil rig accidents. Coast Guard vessels and aircraft focus solely on searching for and rescuing human survivors. The manual gives no direction on whether water or foam should be used to fight a rig fire, a question that was brought up in the New Orleans hearings.

The explicit directions to avoid taking part in firefighting activities came just a few months before Commandant Thad Allen, who would later head the government’s response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, warned that a budget crunch was turning the Coast Guard fleet into a “hollow force.”