Rep. Issa Launches Committee Probe of Interior BP Safety Awards

Rep. Darryll Issa (R-Calif.), top Republican on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, has launched an investigation into Interior Department safety certifications for BP offshore drilling activities.

In letter today to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Issa said the probe would determine “whether the Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service (MMS), which oversees offshore drilling activity, has promulgated regulations necessary to ensure the safety and operability of vessels drilling in the Gulf of Mexico” and whether “MMS improperly awarded safety certifications to BP, Transocean, and the Deepwater Horizon rig.”

The letter (pdf) includes a list of document demands from MMS surrounding the safety certifications. 

“Reports indicate that the Deepwater Horizon appears to have had a faulty ‘dead man’ shut-off switch which, if functioning properly, could have averted this massive spill,” Issa wrote in the letter.  “The malfunctioning ‘failsafe’ device raises serious questions about any safety inspections or audits conducted by MMS or third parties during the certification process.  This, in turn, casts serious doubt upon any safety awards that MMS may have granted to BP and/or Transocean within the past year.”

Issa also questioned the effectiveness of Obama administration’s disaster response plan, if any.

“The American people also have a right to know whether the federal government possessed and implemented an appropriate emergency response plan to mitigate this disaster,” Issa said.  “Though U.S. Coast Guard assets quickly arrive on-scene to assist with the fire and rescue effort, there appears to have been a delay in dispatching significant resources to assist in the environmental clean-up.”

Ron Gouget, a former manager of oil spill cleanup at the government National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) said that there is a plan but it was not implemented.

From the Washington Examiner:

"They had pre-approval. The whole reason the plan was created was so we could pull the trigger right away instead of waiting ten days to get permission," Gouget told the [Mobile] Register. "If you read the pre-approval plan, it speaks about Grand Isle, where the spill is. When the wind is blowing offshore out of the north, you have preapproval to burn in that region. If the wind is coming onshore, like it is now, you can’t burn at Grand Isle. They waited to do the test burn until the wind started coming onshore."

When the Register asked Gouget why federal officials waited for a week before conducting even a test burn, he said, "Good question. Maybe complacency was the biggest issue. They probably didn’t have the materials on hand to conduct the burn, which is unconscionable."

Gouget told the Register that NOAA officials at the Unified Command Center in Louisiana know how to respond to spills, and know burning should have started as soon as possible after the initial release was detected. He also speculated that they may have been prevented from doing so by higher officials.

"It may have been a political issue. The burn would make a big big plume and lots of soot. Like Valdez, the decisions to get the resources mobilized may not have occurred until it was too late," Gouget told the Register. "This whole thing has been a daily strip tease. At first they thought it was just the diesel, then they said the well wasn’t leaking. It’s unfortunate they didn’t get the burning going right away. They could have gotten 90 percent of the oil before it spread."