BP Puts Gulf Well Manager on Leave Pending U.S. Investigations

The BP Plc manager who oversaw the well that erupted in April has been placed on leave while at least four federal agencies probe the disaster that killed 11 workers and triggered the worst oil spill in U.S. history.

Donald Vidrine, the well site leader aboard the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig that exploded and sank nine weeks ago off the Louisiana coast, said in an interview yesterday that he has been on administrative leave since the incident.

Vidrine was the top-ranking BP decision-maker on duty aboard the rig when it was rocked by a surge of gas from beneath the sea floor, Chief Executive Officer Tony Hayward told a House panel last week. Just hours before the disaster, Vidrine overruled objections from representatives of rig owner Transocean Ltd. about how to finish the well, Douglas Brown, the chief mechanic on the vessel, told U.S. Coast Guard and Interior Department investigators in May.

“I can’t talk about it,” Vidrine said during the interview outside his red-and-black brick home in Lafayette, Louisiana, about 130 miles (209 kilometers) west of New Orleans.

Vidrine, 62, declined to say if other BP employees involved in the April 20 catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico have been placed on leave. Vidrine shrugged when asked if and when he expects to return to work.

When asked if he had been placed on leave as a result of the disaster, he said, “Yes, but I really have nothing at all to say.” Vidrine, dressed in a t-shirt, jeans and brown work boots, spoke in his driveway, beside a blue Ford F-150 pickup truck and a cast-iron fleur-de-lis nailed to a fence.

Numerous Probes

“That’s a private matter and we wouldn’t comment on any individuals,” Mark Salt, a spokesman for the London-based company, said in a telephone interview.

The Justice Department, Coast Guard, Interior Department, U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board and several House and Senate committees are each probing what went wrong as BP and contractors that included Transocean and Halliburton Co. worked to seal the Macondo well with cement plugs.

BP estimated the well, which lies under almost 1 mile of water about 40 miles from shore, tapped a field holding 50 million barrels of crude, Hayward said during a June 17 hearing before a House panel.

‘Company Man’

Vidrine, whose face and arms are deeply tanned from years spent aboard offshore drilling vessels, declined to say whether he was injured when the Deepwater Horizon exploded and caught fire with 126 people on board.

He also declined to discuss the events and decisions that preceded the disaster.

Douglas Brown, Transocean’s chief mechanic on the rig on April 20, last month told a joint Coast Guard-Interior Dept. panel that “the company man” from BP had a disagreement with senior Transocean personnel over how to proceed with the well during a planning meeting several hours before the blast.

“There was a slight argument that took place and a difference of opinions and the company was basically saying, ‘Well, this is how it’s going to be,’” Brown told the Coast Guard-Interior investigators during a May 26 hearing. Brown said he didn’t remember the details of the dispute because his job wasn’t directly involved in drilling the well.

Hayward confirmed last week during his House testimony that Vidrine was “the company man” referred to by Brown.

Ban Overturned

Under pressure from President Barack Obama, Hayward and his chairman, Carl-Henric Svanberg, agreed last week to have BP deposit $20 billion in an independently managed account to cover cleanup costs and compensation claims.

BP, the largest oil and natural-gas producer in the Gulf of Mexico, has lost almost half its market value since the catastrophe. Last week, Representative Bart Stupak, a Michigan Democrat, said a five-year string of accidents and deadly disasters at BP-operated facilities could justify banning the company from doing business in the U.S.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar imposed a six-month moratorium on all deep-water exploration in U.S. waters to give a presidential commission time to review safety procedures.

The ban was overturned on June 22 by U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman in New Orleans. The administration vowed to appeal the ruling and Salazar yesterday told a Senate panel that new rules may be issued that may allow some drilling to resume.

To contact the reporters on this story: Joe Carroll in Lafayette, Louisiana, at jcarroll8@bloomberg.net

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