US probing Gulf blowout preventer testing flap

The U.S. government disclosed Friday it is investigating whether a Transocean worker's handling of a key a piece of evidence in the Gulf oil spill probe affected the integrity of the examination...

The U.S. government disclosed Friday it is investigating whether a Transocean worker's handling of a key a piece of evidence in the Gulf oil spill probe affected the integrity of the examination of the device.

Michael Bromwich, director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, said in a letter to U.S. Rep. Ed Markey that his investigators have questioned workers from various government agencies and a Norwegian firm the government hired to test the failed blowout preventer.

While no conclusions have been reached, Bromwich said that firm, Det Norske Veritas or DNV, admitted it was at fault for not disclosing to certain BOEMRE officials the Transocean worker's role in the forensic work. He said that while he currently doesn't believe testing on the device was compromised, the probe continues.

The 300-ton device that failed to stop the oil spill is still being tested in New Orleans.

Bromwich said his agency is committed to ensuring the integrity of the testing and the broader investigation by a joint U.S. Coast Guard-BOEMRE panel looking into the circumstances of the April 20, 2010, rig explosion off Louisiana. The blast killed 11 workers and led to 200 million gallons of oil spewing from a well a mile beneath the Gulf of Mexico.

Among other things, Bromwich said his agency is providing DNV with clear instructions on how to vet workers involved in testing the blowout preventer who may have a conflict of interest. An agency representative also will maintain a greater presence at the test site to ensure the instructions are followed, Bromwich said.

Representatives for Cameron, which made the failed blowout preventer, and Transocean, which was responsible for maintaining it before the disaster, are among an army of interested parties that have been allowed to monitor the examination of the device that began Nov. 16 at a NASA facility. BP, the Justice Department and lawyers for plaintiffs in lawsuits over the disaster also are allowed to monitor.

None of them are allowed to have any hands-on involvement.

Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who is the ranking member on the House Committee on Natural Resources, sent a letter to Bromwich earlier this month raising concerns about conflicts of interest, including the hands-on role DNV allowed Transocean worker Owen McWhorter to play. The U.S. Chemical Safety Board, which also is monitoring the blowout preventer testing, has raised concerns as well.

Transocean has denied that any of its employees acted improperly and declined to comment Friday.

Markey said in a strongly worded statement that the government should be doing a better job of overseeing the examination and argued that conflict-of-interest issues are sure to be brought up in court when the issue of who to blame for the disaster is litigated.

"The real losers from this lapse in judgment will likely be the American people, and specifically the families in the Gulf of Mexico," Markey said.

DNV has not responded to repeated requests for comment on the flap.

During a hearing Friday in New Orleans, Justice Department attorney R. Michael Underhill said DNV was on track to deliver its report on the blowout preventer by the end of March.

A report from the joint panel probing the disaster won't be done until DNV's report is finished — meaning the panel likely won't meet its March 27 deadline. It has already sought one extension and could request another.

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Associated Press writer Michael Kunzelman contributed to this report from New Orleans.

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