Accusations fly at Deepwater Horizon spill trial


NEW ORLEANS -- The much-anticipated Deepwater Horizon trial began with a flurry of finger pointing here Monday, as lawyers for BP, Transocean, Halliburton, the federal government, Gulf Coast states and local businesses traded barbs over who is to blame for the deadly 2010 explosion and oil spill.

Transocean, which owned the drilling rig, failed to train its crews properly and didn't maintain key safety equipment, said Jim Roy, a lawyer for hundreds of businesses suing the energy companies that were drilling the ill-fated well.

Brad Brian, a lawyer for Transocean, said that wasn't true, noting that the Coast Guard, federal safety regulators and BP's own management considered the Deepwater Horizon rig "what "good" looked like."

Michael Underhill, the Justice Department's lead civil attorney, focused on a last-minute conversation between BP engineers on the rig and onshore that he said showed that the oil giant acted with gross negligence.

But BP attorney Mike Brock argued the accident was caused by many mistakes made by all the parties aboard the rig, which exploded in April 2010, killing 11 workers and unleashing the worst offshore oil spill in US history. "There were a number of mistakes and errors in judgment that were made by BP, Transocean and Halliburton," Mr. Brock said.

The conflicting statements came on the first day of the civil trial, held in federal district court, aimed at determining the degree of culpability that BP and the other companies have for the accident. A second trial, scheduled for the fall, will determine how much oil leaked into the Gulf of Mexico.

Together, they will determine the size of fines companies face under the Clean Water Act, which could total as much as $17.6 billion.

BP, which hired Transocean and Halliburton to work on drilling its well, has said the fines would likely be under $5 billion.

Both Transocean and the Justice Department focused part of their opening statements on a 10-minute ship-to-shore phone call between two BP engineers, Donald Vidrine and Mark Hafle, less than an hour before the blast.

From the rig, Mr. Vidrine allegedly talked about unusual results from a test designed to ensure the cement sealing in the bottom of the well was successful. Investigators later found that workers on the rig misinterpreted the results of the test.

"In many ways, it's a microcosm of what BP did wrong on this well and why Transocean and its crew truly are victims of BP's misconduct," Mr. Brian, the Transocean lawyer, said. Instructing the crew to go ahead with its work in the wake of these test results "was reckless, in utter and wholesale disregard of the facts."

Mr. Underhill, of the Justice Department, said if Mr. Hafle and Mr. Vidrine had put a halt to the operations after the phone call they "could have saved 11 lives, saved the Gulf, saved the people of the Gulf from a catastrophe."

Analysts following the case have said the call is important as it could move knowledge of problems from the rig to BP management onshore.

Mr. Brock, BP's lawyer, said Monday the conversation wasn't about the final safety test but another part of operations, and that many things were missed by all the parties in the moments leading up to the accident.

Mr. Vidrine has pleaded not guilty to 22 counts of involuntary manslaughter, and has maintained his innocence. Mr. Hafle hasn't been charged; his lawyer said Mr. Hafle isn't a party in the case and noted that opening statements aren't considered evidence in a trial.

BP already has agreed to pay more than $30 billion in fines, settlements and cleanup costs for the blowout and resulting Gulf of Mexico oil spill, including $4 billion to settle criminal charges related to the accident. Transocean has agreed to $1 billion in civil fines and $400 million in criminal penalties.

A settlement is still possible. The Justice Department and Gulf Coast states have considered offering BP a $16 billion deal to cover its potential fines under the Clean Water Act as well as payments under an environmental evaluation, several people familiar with the offer said.

Dow Jones Newswires

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