WASHINGTON — In the days after an oil well spun out of control in the Gulf of Mexico, BP engineers tried to activate a huge piece of underwater safety equipment but failed because the device had been so altered that diagrams BP got from the equipment's owner didn't match the supposedly failsafe device's configuration, congressional investigators said Wednesday.
The oil well also failed at least one critical pressure test on the day that gas surged up the drill pipe and set the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig aflame, killing 11 and setting off a spill that has spewed 210,000 gallons of crude into the gulf every day for three weeks, according to BP documents provided to congressional investigators.
"The more I learn about this accident, the more concerned I become. This catastrophe appears to have been caused by a calamitous series of equipment and operational failures'' said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said at a hearing on Wednesday _ the third congressional hearing in two days on the unfolding catastrophe.
Meanwhile, BP engineers announced that they were considering yet another tactic to seal one of two leaks 5,000 feet below the gulf's surface. The new tactic, dubbed the "insertion tube" by BP, would attempt to insert a smaller pipe into the leaking one and siphon the oil to the surface. It would complement a previously announced plan to place a small funnel that BP engineers call a "top hat" over the same leak.
The "top hat" arrived on the sea floor Tuesday night, and BP officials said it might be deployed over the leak on Thursday. It was unclear, however, whether both it and the "insertion tube" would be tried simultaneously or whether the "insertion tube" was an alternative to the "top hat."
Word of the missing diagram, the failed test and the addition of another experimental option to close the leak came as the Obama administration announced that it had recruited five government and private scientists to add what Energy Secretary Stephen Chu called "intellectual horsepower" to BP's efforts to contain the oil spill and shut off the well.
Chu and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar met Wednesday with BP engineers and executives at BP's Houston headquarters for a round of briefings that began at 6 a.m. At least some of the scientists, who include the director of Energy Department's Sandia National Labs, were present for the meetings.
Salazar described the trip as a “manifestation of the president’s focus on dealing with this problem” and said the administration is working toward a "two-pronged goal: to end the current crisis and find ways to prevent future catastrophes."
Chu, a Nobel laureate in physics, said he was guardedly optimistic. “I’m feeling more confident than I was a week ago. Things are looking up.” But he also added that “this is a complicated affair” and said he did not want to be seen as offering false hope.
Gulf coast officials remained angry at the spill and the risk it poses for local communities, and the White House announced that it would work to raise the current $75 million limit on how much oil companies can be forced to pay for damages and other costs. U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, citing BP's 133 percent increase in first quarter profits, said he believes the new limit should be $10 billion.
At Venice, La., Gov. Bobby Jindal reiterated his call for BP to supply more anti-oil booms to help keep the oil out of Louisiana’s wetlands.
"There was no reason for this accident -- this tragedy -- to have happened and so I absolutely want them to get to the bottom of what didn’t work, make sure it doesn’t happen again,” he said. "But here in Louisiana, here on the ground, our number one priority is protecting our way of life, protecting our coast, and we’ve got to be completely 100 percent focused on that."
Who ordered the alterations in the blowout preventer, the 500,000-pound mass of gears and hydraulic valves that sits atop and underwater well and is intended to snap the pipe if disaster threatens, was the subject of dispute at Wednesday's hearing.
Transocean, the owner of the blowout preventer and of the sunken Deepwater Horizon rig, said any alterations would have come at BP's instigation; BP, which owns the well and hired Transocean to drill it, said it had never sought the changes.
Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, said the changes prevented BP's engineers from activating a "variable bore ram" intended to close tight around the pipe and seal it.
"When they investigated why their attempts failed to activate the bore ram," Stupak said of BP engineers, "they learned that the device had been modified. A useless test ram _ not the variable bore ram _ had been connected to the socket that was supposed to activate the variable bore ram."
"An entire day’s worth of precious time had been spent engaging rams that closed the wrong way.”
Stupak said that BP officials told subcommittee investigators that “after the accident, they asked Transocean for drawings of the blowout preventer.”
“Because of the modifications, the drawings they received didn’t match the structure on the ocean floor,” Stupak said. “BP said they wasted many hours figuring this out.”
The failed pressure test caused Waxman to question the work of a third company, Halliburton, which was contracted to pour concrete around the well's pipe and cap it.
Waxman said that the well was tested multiple times on the day of the explosion to ensure its integrity.
It passed one set of so-called positive pressure tests in which fluids were injected into the well to increase pressure to monitor whether the well remains stable.
It failed, however, a negative pressure test, in which fluid inside the well is reduced to see whether gas leaks into the well through the cement or casing.
It was this test _ made after Halliburton had cemented the well at 12:35 a.m. on April 20, the day of the accident _ that the system failed, Waxman said.
Another test showed high pressure in the main well pipe but zero pressure in two other connecting lines, a sign, Waxman said, that gas was leaking into pipe.
What happened next, Waxman said, is "murky." BP attorneys say the well passed subsequent tests and at 8 p.m. the company resumed removing heavy and costly drilling lubricants known as mud from the well.
The well blew about an hour and a half later when a huge mass of methane gas burst up the pipe, engulfed the rig and exploded into flames.
On Tuesday, Frank Patton, a drilling engineer for the government's Mineral Management Service, which oversees offshore drilling, told a separate inquiry in Kenner, La., that drilling mud "is the most important thing in safety for your well."
He said that any alteration to the blowout preventer would have required both BP and MMS approval.
On Wednesday, Coast Guard inspectors testified at the inquiry that regulations for offshore drilling rigs largely date to 1978 and have not kept pace with technological advances.
"The pace of the technology has outrun the current regulations," Lt. Cmdr. Michael Odom told the joint panel of the Coast Guard and U.S. Minerals Management Service investigating the Deepwater Horizon incident.
(McClatchy correspondent Recio reported from Washington, Montgomery, of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, from Houston and Washburn, of the Charlotte Observer, from Kenner, La., Contributing to this story were McClatchy correspondent Erika Bolstad from Washington, Marc Caputo, of The Miami Herald, from Venice, La., and Daniel Chang and Jennifer Lebovich of the Miami Herald from Miami.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow the latest politics news at McClatchy's Planet Washington
Follow McClatchy on Twitter.