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Investigators: Deepwater Horizon Oil Rig Failed Key Tests Ahead of Explosion

May 12, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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Tom Bearden continues his reporting from the Gulf of Mexico with an update on hearings into the massive oil spill, as investigators testified that the Deepwater Horizons oil well failed a key pressure test just hours before the explosion.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: the latest on the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

BP and Coast Guard officials said today they were hopeful that a new containment dome would capture some leaking oil as early as tomorrow night. BP today released underwater video of the main oil leak. They show oil gushing out of a riser pipe nearly 5,000 feet below sea level.

Meantime, there were new questions in Washington today about failsafe equipment.

NewsHour correspondent Tom Bearden reports.

TOM BEARDEN: Late into the night, workers lowered a second containment dome into the Gulf of Mexico, in another attempt to finally cap the blown-out well. Engineers worked to configure it today to avoid slush buildup that last week doomed an effort to cap the well with a much bigger dome.

But, in Washington, lawmakers said their patience was waning, as top officials from the companies in charge of running and operating the rig appeared for a second day on Capitol Hill.

REP. EDWARD MARKEY, D-Mass.: As the result of the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, lives have been lost, livelihoods have been threatened, and a huge ocean and coastal ecosystem endangered. We have a duty and obligation to find out what happened here, why it happened, who was responsible, and how we can ensure that it never happens again.

TOM BEARDEN: The House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations held today’s hearing as part of its own inquiry into the spill.

Michigan Democrat Bart Stupak said their investigation found there was a critical failure in a device on the seafloor that was designed to prevent a leak in an emergency.

REP. BART STUPAK, D-Mich.: The blowout preventer had a significant leak in a key hydraulic system. This leak was found in the hydraulic system that provides emergency power to the shear — to the shear rams, which are the devices that are supposed to cut the drill pipe and seal the well.

TOM BEARDEN: Jack Moore, the CEO of Cameron, the blowout preventer’s manufacturer, said it was too early to draw any conclusions.

JACK MOORE, president and CEO, Cameron: We don’t know what happened. I think that’s what everyone here is trying to learn. And until we know what happens with this investigation, we will not be able to answer whether the blowout preventer that was there was functioning for that particular purpose.

TOM BEARDEN: California’s Henry Waxman, a Democrat, also said the committee’s investigation found the oil rig failed a pressure test just hours before the April 20 explosion. The CEO of the rig’s owner, Transocean, acknowledged that the test may have been a signal of trouble.

STEVEN NEWMAN, president and chief executive officer, Transocean Limited: The significance of the discrepancy between the two pressures would lead — lead to a conclusion that there was something happening in the well bore that shouldn’t be happening.

TOM BEARDEN: Texas Democrat Gene Green also pressed Transocean’s CEO about statements rig workers signed in the aftermath of the spill.

One of the survivors told the NewsHour in an interview this week that some workers felt pressured to sign waivers soon after the accident saying they didn’t witness the blast and were not injured.

REP. GENE GREEN, D-Texas: Can you comment on the statements that these employees were forced to take? And is there a copy we could see?

STEVEN NEWMAN: We absolutely will provide the copy of the statements. And I can categorically deny that they were forced to sign.

TOM BEARDEN: Joe Barton, a Republican from Texas, also criticized the companies, but warned, lawmakers shouldn’t overreact.

REP. JOE BARTON, R-Texas: We’ll find out the facts, and we’ll take corrective measures to prevent that from happening in the future, whether it’s legislatively or regulatorily or through best-practices changes by the industry.

But what we should not do, Mr. Chairman, is make a decision to fence off the Outer Continental Shelf, to use this as the equivalent of the Three Mile Island accident for nuclear power and set back domestic oil and gas production in the Outer Continental Shelf for the next 20 or 30 years.

TOM BEARDEN: But the massive spill and its effects along the Gulf Coast have already begun shaping legislative action in Washington. This afternoon, lawmakers from the Senate unveiled a long-delayed energy and climate bill.

SEN. JOHN KERRY, D-Mass.: And right now, as one of the worst oil spills in our nation’s history washes onto our shores, no one can doubt how urgently we need a new energy policy in this country.

TOM BEARDEN: The 1,000-page bill would impose the first mandatory caps and prices on greenhouse gas emissions, and calls for a 17 percent cut in carbon pollution from 2005 levels. But it would also allow coastal states to veto drilling off the shores of neighboring states if they think it will lead to harm.

For its part, the Obama administration unveiled new legislation today to make sure BP pays for the ever-growing costs and damage. The White House will ask Congress to raise a prior liability cap that could limit damages BP has to pay, add a penny-per-barrel tax to replenish a federal cleanup fund, and provide assistance for fishermen and others affected by the spill.

Here in New Orleans’ French Quarter, seafood restaurants are among the biggest tourist attractions, but the products are becoming increasingly scarce, and some people are beginning to ask if they’re safe to eat.

Gary Wollerman is the owner and manager of G.W. Finn’s Restaurant just off Bourbon Street. The restaurant didn’t get a local seafood delivery today, but are getting fish from other parts of the Gulf. He says supply is down, but adequate for the moment. And he says a few customers are asking questions about some of the things they see on his menu.

What do you tell people when they ask about safety?

GARY WOLLERMAN, owner and manager, G.W. Fins Restaurant: That there is absolutely nothing to be concerned about. In fact, I’m almost a little surprised by the question when I get it. Nobody is going to risk serving unsafe food to anybody.

TOM BEARDEN: Ewell Smith is the executive director of the Louisiana Seafood and Marketing Promotion Board. He says the state is desperately trying to reassure the country about the state’s seafood.

EWELL SMITH, executive director, Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board: We cannot afford an economic tragedy. The overall impact of our fisheries is $2.4 billion to this — to this state. We represent about one — almost — about 30 percent of all the domestic seafood harvested in the continental United States comes from our state.

TOM BEARDEN: Smith says national demand hasn’t fallen yet, and local demand is actually, as Gulf Coast residents stock up against the possibility of a shortage in the future.