Gulf Oil Spill Caused by Firefighters Flooding Deepwater Rig, Suit Says

The worst oil spill in U.S. history was triggered by firefighting boats that flooded the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig with water, causing it to sink into the Gulf of Mexico and damage BP Plc’s well, a lawsuit claims.

Commercial fishermen, waterfront property owners and oil industry workers who have lost jobs because of the oil spill yesterday sued 17 companies whose fireboats responded to the explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon on April 20. The rig was still attached to the subsea well when it sank two days later.

“It was the flooding of the Deepwater Horizon and the resulting sinking of the rig that directly caused the piping to break and begin spewing millions of gallons of oil into the ocean,” Lloyd Frischhertz and Gerald Maples, lawyers for the spill victims, said in a complaint filed in federal court in New Orleans.

The lawsuit doesn’t seek damages from BP, rig-owner Transocean Ltd. or the U.S. Coast Guard, which helped direct the firefighting effort. The plaintiffs claim the fireboats violated industry standard procedures that warn against using water cannons to attack pressurized oil fires aboard marine vessels.

“Any request or encouragement by U.S. Coast Guard, British Petroleum or Transocean to pump water and use water cannons’’ for extended periods to fight the fire “should have been met with protest and refusal,’’ according to the complaint.

50,000 Gallons

As many as eight fireboats each shot “10,000 to 50,000 gallons of seawater on the rig per minute,” according to the complaint. They flooded the rig’s upper compartments and destabilized it, causing it to tip over and sink, the plaintiffs said.

The fireboats should have used their “dynamic positioning systems” to hold the Deepwater Horizon in place while fighting the fire with industry-approved methods, the complaint alleged. That would have kept the rig connected to the well with an intact riser, “greatly enhancing the ability to manage and control the discharge of oil,” the complaint said.

The plaintiffs asked to proceed on behalf of all commercial fisherman, charter-boat operators and other businesses affected by the spill; property owners whose land was fouled; and oil workers who lost work because of the U.S.-imposed halt in offshore drilling. They’re asking the court for compensatory and punitive damages.

Molly Hottinger, a spokeswoman for Seacor Holdings Inc., parent of defendant Seacor Marine, declined to comment. Les Van Dyke, a spokesman for Diamond Offshore Drilling Inc., a unit of which is also a defendant in the suit, didn’t immediately return a call for comment.

The case is Robin v. Seacor Marine LLC, 2:10-cv-01986, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Louisiana (New Orleans).

To contact the reporters on this story: Laurel Brubaker Calkins in Houston at laurel@calkins.us.com; Margaret Cronin Fisk in Southfield, Michigan, at mcfisk@bloomberg.net.

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