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BP Well Boss Won’t Shed Light on Cause of Oil Spill

Near the source of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill
Oil sheen is seen with vessels assisting near the source of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Photographer: Mario Tama/Getty Images

BP Plc’s chief decision maker on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig declined for the second time to give his version of the events that killed 11 workers and triggered the biggest U.S. oil spill in history.

Donald Vidrine, a BP well-site manager, was asked to attend hearings that start today in Kenner, Louisiana, as investigators from the U.S. Coast Guard and Interior Department try to determine what caused the April 20 disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Vidrine declined, citing health problems, said Sue Kerver, a Coast Guard spokeswoman.

If the Justice Department finds the actions taken by Vidrine and another BP well manager, Robert Kaluza, led to the explosion, deaths and spill, they could face criminal charges, four former federal prosecutors said. So could other BP employees and managers at rig owner Transocean Ltd. who approved the decisions.

“Managers on the rig are at risk of criminal prosecution and jail time,” said Jane Barrett, who spent 20 years prosecuting environmental crimes at both the federal and state level. “That also opens the door to DOJ walking up the corporate ladder to prosecute executives who were part of the decision-making process or set the corporate culture.”

Billions in Fines

If convicted, the managers and executives could go to jail and the companies could pay billions of dollars in fines, said Stan Alpert, the former chief environmental crimes litigator for the U.S. attorney’s office in the Eastern District of New York.

Under the Clean Water Act, the officials could face jail time for negligence that led to the oil spill. The company and officials also could face fines for each bird injured or killed under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, said Barrett, who now runs the Environmental Clinic at the University of Maryland.

They could be prosecuted for the deaths of the 11 crewmen under the Seaman’s Manslaughter Law, where prosecutors need only prove the deaths resulted from “fraud, neglect, connivance, misconduct or a violation of law,” Barrett said.

Hannah August, a Justice Department spokeswoman, declined to say whether prosecutors were focusing on Vidrine or other BP or Transocean employees. “We’re looking at all possible violations of the law,” she said.

Poor Health

Vidrine, who has been on administrative leave since the disaster, also cited poor health in May when he declined to attend the first round of Coast Guard hearings. Kaluza, who attended those proceedings, invoked his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself and refused to answer questions. He has been asked to testify again tomorrow.

Vidrine declined to comment for this story. His lawyer, Robert Habans of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, last week declined to comment on whether Vidrine would testify.

Stephen Bertone, a Transocean chief engineer, spoke at today’s hearing. He will be followed by employees of oilfield-service providers Weatherford International Ltd., M-I Swaco and Oceaneering International Inc.

BP spokesman Mark Salt declined to comment on Vidrine’s role or on the company’s internal investigation. London-based BP fell 19.3 pence, or 4.7 percent, to 387.85 pence at 9:09 p.m. in London. Transocean fell $4, or 7.7 percent, to $48.08 at 4 p.m. in New York Stock Exchange composite trading.

Another Location

On the night of the explosion, Vidrine and Kaluza were seeking to cap the Macondo well so they could move the Deepwater Horizon rig to another location in the Gulf of Mexico, according to transcripts from congressional hearings.

Rig workers began replacing heavy drilling fluid with lighter seawater. While this is standard operating procedure at this stage of a drilling operation, BP and Transocean, the Swiss company that owns the Deepwater Horizon, had struggled for weeks to control natural gas pushing up the well.

Using seawater under such circumstances can allow a gas “kick,” said Greg McCormack, a director of the Petroleum Extension Service at the University of Texas in Houston. “If the kick is not contained, a blowout occurs.”

BP managers in Houston approved the decision to replace drilling fluid in the well with seawater, Transocean Subsea Engineer Christopher Pleasant told Coast Guard investigators.

Shoulder Blame

Vidrine’s friends and neighbors say they’re worried he’ll shoulder all the blame for the disaster.

Bruce Poret, who lives near Vidrine on Pierret Drive in Lafayette, Louisiana, and counts him as a “close friend” of 15 years’ standing, said he believed senior managers at BP’s Houston base who vetted and approved Vidrine’s decisions would escape unscathed.

“They’ll look for someone down the line to blame it on, even if that isn’t the right thing to do,” said Poret, a 54-year-old production engineer for Chevron Corp. “Don’s a great guy and a good neighbor. It hurts us all to see what he’s going through.”

Poret and other neighbors said Vidrine has been declining invitations to backyard cookouts since the disaster. The usual evening sounds of people talking and laughing has been absent from the neighborhood, said Paula Byrd, who lives across the street from Vidrine’s red-brick house.

‘Very Upset’

Until a neighbor told her, “I hadn’t even realized that was Don’s rig that blew up,” Byrd said as a pair of pet raccoons gamboled out an open carport and into the woods. “We’re all very upset for him, partly because we’re all oil and gas people here in this neighborhood, so we have that bond.”

Vidrine is a descendant of one of the first families to settle the rural town of Ville Platte, 40 miles northwest of Lafayette, where the swampy coastal plain gives way to woods and rolling farmland. Oil was discovered on the north edge of town in 1940 at a place called Tate Cove.

As a BP well-site manager, or “company man,” Vidrine was the most senior person on the Deepwater Horizon the night it exploded. While people holding Vidrine’s position consult constantly with the rig owner’s installation manager, the company man is the highest authority at the site because the oil company is paying the bills.

Unusual Argument

In the hours before the explosion, Vidrine argued with Transocean’s installation manager, Jimmy Wayne Harrell, according to testimony from rig mechanic Douglas Brown.

That’s unusual, said Phil Tobey, an area manager for Diamond Offshore Drilling Inc. in Houston who spent 35 of his 54 years working on offshore rigs and worked his way up to installation manager.

“It astounded me that they got into an argument,” he said. “If any of my guys have any issues at all, it’s actually settled pretty quickly. I say, ‘Please go call your boss and we’re going to call ours, and we’ll settle this in town.’”

Download: BP's Suttles Says Relief Well on Target for End of July

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