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c.2013 Houston Chronicle< Four years after the Gulf of Mexico oil catastrophe, the owner of the Deepwater Horizon rig is still fighting a federal agency over records that investigators say shed additional light on a critical safety valve that failed to stop the fatal explosion and massive spill.
The latest skirmish was Monday when U.S. attorneys urged a panel of federal appeals judges meeting in Houston to reject Transocean's challenge to subpoenas issued four years ago for records linked to the April 2010 disaster. The U.S. Chemical Safety Board already has the documents, which officials say contain new information that is pivotal for a new report due in June.
That report is expected to reveal new findings on the Deepwater Horizon and its blowout preventer.
But Transocean, a subject of many of the 17 separate probes into the 2010 spill, has disputed the Chemical Safety Board's authority to investigate the oil spill since the subpoenas were issued. The company points to language in the federal law that created the agency in 1998 that says it "shall not be authorized to investigate marine oil spills."
Last year, a federal judge in Houston ordered Transocean to turn over the records. The company complied, but is now seeking to keep them out of the hands of any future congressional body that wants to take another look at the disaster that killed 11 workers and spilled millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf.
Justice Department attorney Adam Goldman said overturning the five subpoenas issued to the Swiss rig operator could open the safety board to legal challenges to "basically scrap" its upcoming report, which he described as a unique and important study on ways to prevent future offshore accidents.
Transocean had operated the Deepwater Horizon rig under contract with BP, owner of the Macondo well that blew out during the night of April 20, 2010, and precipitated the months-long spill. The company is vigorously fighting the CSB because complying with the subpoenas would implicitly acknowledge the board's authority, said Blaine Lecesne, a Loyola University law professor.
''Those findings could then be used against Transocean in future liability determinations during the oil spill litigation," Lecesne said. "Transocean wants to be able to challenge those findings and not be estopped from doing so because they complied with the investigation."
The CSB plans to issue a report June 5 at a public meeting in Houston on the technical, organizational and cultural factors behind the accident, as well as recommendations on ways regulators and industry players can improve offshore safety.
In an April 18 statement, the CSB said it will go beyond previous reports by showing new findings on why the rig's blowout preventer failed. It also promised an analysis of the industry's approach to risk management, corporate governance and other organizational factors that could be improved to prevent future accidents.
Judge Edith Jones of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday noted that Transocean has not requested the judges undo the CSB report.
''They're going to publish a report, so that's going to let all the cats out of the bag," Jones said.
Those records, an attorney for Transocean said, could be used in future Chemical Safety Board materials or congressional briefings.
''They shouldn't have it for future testimony. That's significant to Transocean," said Sean Jordan, an attorney at Sutherland, Asbill & Brennan. "This is an unprecedented assertion of authority" by the CSB, he said.
Jordan argued that Congress set up the safety board 16 years ago to investigate onshore accidents at petroleum refineries and the like.
Vessels like the Deepwater Horizon rig typically are the purview of the National Transportation Safety Board, an agency that led one of 16 other probes into the accident.
Goldman, of the Justice Department, said the CSB is not an enforcement agency and its report would not be admissible as evidence against Transocean in court.
But that might not matter to a future court that will decide if it is admissible, another reason for Transocean to fight the subpoenas, said Lecesne, of Loyola. XXX - End of Story<3D>