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Agency fell short in oil rig checkups

Inspectors praised Gulf site for safety

By Justin Pritchard
Associated Press / May 17, 2010

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LOS ANGELES — The federal agency responsible for ensuring that the Deepwater Horizon was operating safely before it exploded last month fell well short of its own policy that the rig be inspected at least once per month, an Associated Press investigation found.

In fact, the agency’s inspection frequency on the Deepwater Horizon fell dramatically over the past five years, according to federal Minerals Management Service records. The rig blew up April 20, killing 11 people before sinking and triggering a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Since January 2005, inspectors issued just one minor infraction for the rig. That track record led the agency last year to herald the Deepwater Horizon as an industry model for safety.

The inspection gaps are the latest in a series of questions raised about the agency’s oversight of the oil drilling industry. Members of Congress and President Obama have criticized what they call the cozy relationship between regulators and oil companies and vowed to reform MMS, which both regulates the industry and collects billions in royalties from it.

Earlier investigations by the Associated Press have shown that the doomed rig was allowed to operate without safety documentation required by MMS regulations for the exact disaster scenario that occurred; that the cutoff valve that failed has repeatedly broken down at other wells in the years since regulators weakened testing requirements; and that regulation is so lax that some key safety aspects on rigs are decided almost entirely by the companies doing the work.

In response to an Associated Press query on how many times government safety inspectors visited the rig, and what they found, MMS officials offered a changing series of numbers. The agency has had longstanding issues with its data management.

At first, officials said 83 inspections had been performed since the rig arrived in the Gulf 104 months ago, in September 2001. While being questioned about how that response fit with its once-a-month inspection policy, the officials subsequently revised the total up to 88 inspections. The number of more recent inspections also changed — from 26 to 48 in the 64 months since January 2005.

No explanation was given for the upward revisions. AP granted the officials anonymity because without that condition, communications staff at the Interior Department, which oversees MMS, would not have let them talk.

Based on the last set of numbers provided, the Deepwater Horizon was inspected 40 times during its first 40 months in the Gulf, in line with agency policy for offshore drilling rigs.

Even using the more favorable numbers for the most recent 64 months, 25 percent of monthly inspections were not performed. The first set of data supplied to AP represented a 59 percent shortfall in the number of inspections.

Interior Department spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff would not comment on the inspection numbers. Instead, she offered a general statement: “We are looking at all the questions that are coming out of the Deepwater Horizon incident.’’

In response to a Freedom of Information Act request, the agency has released copies of only three inspection reports: those conducted in January, February, and April. According to the documents, inspectors spent two hours or less each time they visited the massive rig.

Some information appeared to be “whited out,’’ without explanation.

The inspection job falls to the 55 inspectors in the Gulf who are supposed to visit the 90 drilling rigs once per month and the approximately 3,500 oil production platforms once per year.