Jul 132010
Authors: By Richard Fausset and Nicole Santa Cruz, McClatchy-Tribune

ATLANTA –– The head of the federal response to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill announced Tuesday night that the government and BP would delay a crucial test to determine whether it was safe to use a newly applied sealing cap to finally shut down the runaway well.

It is hoped that the test will determine whether there are any serious leaks plaguing the 13,000-foot hole in the earth –– apart, of course, from the notorious leak at the top.

The test was originally scheduled to take place Tuesday evening. Now it appears that it will not take place until late Wednesday at the earliest.

In a statement on the government’s spill response website, former Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said the timetable changed after a discussion he had with Energy Secretary Steven Chu, BP officials, geologists and other experts.

“As a result of these discussions, we decided that the process may benefit from additional analysis that will be performed tonight and tomorrow,” Allen said in a statement.

A representative from the spill response’s information center could not elaborate on the reasons for the delay, and BP and Department of Homeland Security officials did not respond to calls late Tuesday.

Allen’s four-sentence statement specifically mentioned that the group of experts had reviewed a seismic mapping run that was made around the well site Tuesday morning. Allen is scheduled to make a statement Wednesday afternoon.

The new cap, which was affixed to the well Monday, holds out hope for an end to a disaster that has stretched nearly three months, but success is far from certain. Much depends on the upcoming test, which will give experts an idea about how stable the well is below the sea floor.

If it is determined that there are likely leaks in the underground pipe, closing off the well with a cap could exacerbate them. That could eventually send oil seeping up through other parts of the sea floor, making a solution exponentially more difficult.

In that case, to prevent that possibility, BP and government officials would let the oil continue to flow out from the top of the well, where some of it would be collected using riser pipes and containment ships. The company promises that new ships and new technology will allow it to collect all of the flowing oil –– estimated at up to 60,000 barrels a day –– by late July.

But if tests show the well to be stable for 48 hours, BP may use the 150,000-pound cap to block all of the flowing oil for the first time since the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig on April 20.

To conduct the test, the company will slowly shut off the valves that allow oil to flow from the new cap. The well will be sealed, and if test results are good, the seal will remain.

At a news conference in Houston early Tuesday, Allen said he was “very confident” that crews could use the cap to stop the oil flow, but only long enough to perform the test.

“What we can’t tell is the current condition of the well bore below the sea floor,” he said. As a result, Allen was reluctant to guess at the chances of success.
Allowing the ships to take up the oil is only a partial fix, since the vessels would have to disconnect in the event of a hurricane.

Government and BP officials have long maintained that the only permanent solution will come when the gushing well is intercepted by one of two relief wells now under construction. The nearest relief well could have the troubled well plugged up with drilling mud and cement by mid-August, BP Senior Vice President Kent Wells said.

Sharon Gauthe, a community organizer from Thibodeaux, La., has been following updates on the repair on TV. “I just pray it’s going to work,” she said.

In New Orleans on Tuesday, it was the human cost of the spill, and the policies it has spawned, that dominated the second day of hearings by a new commission directed by President Barack Obama to study the rig blowout and its effects.

Much of the conversation focused on the Obama administration’s unveiling Monday of a revamped moratorium on deep-water drilling. Last month, a federal judge ruled that the administration likely acted “arbitrarily and capriciously” when it issued its original moratorium a few weeks after the rig blowout so that safety rules could be reassessed.

Administration officials hope the new moratorium, which they say is more narrowly drawn than the original, will pass muster with the courts.

It had not won approval, however, with many Louisianans, who fear that a moratorium would cost the state thousands of jobs.

In a presentation to the commission, Charlotte Randolph, president of coastal Lafourche Parish, said the spill had devastated the local fishing industry and that the moratorium was “adding insult to injury.”

Randolph, one of several speakers who opposed the moratorium, estimated that 45 percent of the parish’s tax base could be affected by the ban, which could last through Nov. 30.

Hornbeck Offshore Services Inc., one of the companies that challenged the administration’s earlier deep-water drilling moratorium, said in a statement Tuesday that it was reviewing the revised moratorium and had “substantial concerns about its consistency” with the federal judge’s ruling last month.

Meanwhile, the bills continued piling up for BP. The White House announced Tuesday that it had sent another bill to the oil company and other “responsible parties” on the hook for the government response. This time the tab came to about $100 million, bringing the total billings to $222 million so far.

BP has paid the first three bills, totaling $122.3 million, in full, the White House said.

 Posted by at 5:24 pm

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Jul 132010
Authors: By Maggie Bridgeman, McClatchy Newspapers

WASHINGTON –– Three months after a mine explosion killed 29 workers in West Virginia, lawmakers debated legislation Tuesday that would toughen workplace safety rules and increase penalties for all of the nation’s employers for only the second time in 40 years.

The House Committee on Education and Labor discussed the proposed legislation, which also prohibits the firing of employees who report unsafe conditions and raises penalties for employers violating safety policies to as much as $250,000 from $70,000.

An April 5 explosion at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, W.Va., the deadliest mine accident in four decades, prompted the legislation, but Republican opponents argue that the bill goes beyond addressing the mine accident.

Supporters for the legislation –– mostly the Democrats –– say the costs of work-related accidents and illnesses outweigh the expenses of stricter regulations and are pushing for a quick vote.

“The fact of the matter is that the current law isn’t working and the pattern of violations that existed (in the 1970s) were exceeded even by the Massey mine here,” said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House panel.

Opponents of the legislation said the bill strays from its main objective of improving mine safety and dramatically reshapes workplace safety policies, driving up costs for employers and making job creation more difficult.

“I do appreciate Chairman Miller’s apparent urgency,” said Rep. John Kline, R-Minn. “I would simply urge us to act as quickly as is prudent to make the necessary changes to the law and its enforcement to protect miners.”

Following the April blast, President Barack Obama directed federal mine health and safety officials to crack down on coal mines with a pattern of serious safety violations and urged Congress to fix safety laws that are “riddled with loopholes.”

Massey coal mines received hundreds of citations in 2009, including orders to evacuate workers over safety concerns. Federal records show Massey received hundreds more citations for underground mines in Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia following the April explosion.

Stanley Stewart, a coal miner and Massey employee, told lawmakers that Massey has a history of being irresponsible.

“In my years of working for Massey, I feel they have taken coal mining back to the early 1900s using three principles: fear, intimidation and propaganda,” Stewart said.

Don Blankenship, Massey’s chairman and chief executive, wasn’t at the hearing, but he defended his company’s safety record in a Senate hearing in May.

“Let me state for the record, Massey does not place profits over safety. We never have and we never will,” he said then.

According to a preliminary investigative report ordered by the Obama administration, the April mine blast is likely to have been caused by a preventable buildup of methane gas and coal dust. The preliminary report also found that the citations issued by the Mine Safety and Health Administration at the Upper Big Branch mine were more numerous than average and were for more serious violations.

MSHA and the Justice Department are investigating the explosion to determine if crimes were committed, and the FBI is looking into whether Massey officials tampered with safety devices as well as other issues.

In June, Massey sued MSHA for what it called the agency’s “improper use of regulatory authority to control the design of ventilation systems and to limit the use of scrubbers in underground mines.”

Opposition from mining companies against tougher safety sanctions has created a backlog of roughly 16,000 cases involving 89,000 violations and more than $195 million in fines, according to Joseph Main, MSHA’s director. The sheer volume of these cases has clogged the appeals process and, in some instances, allowed operators to delay paying hefty fines, safety advocates said.

 Posted by at 4:05 pm