It was only a matter of time before a disaster the magnitude and impact of BP's Gulf oil spill occurred. For an industry with next to no regulation, incredibly liberal permit procedures, and protocols of self-policing, it is not wonder that the most obvious of safeguards — a simple electrical alert system — had been disabled onboard the Deepwater Horizon. Here's the testimony of a chief engineer who survived the BP blowout and lived to tell the tale.
According to the testimony of former Marine Michael Williams before a federal hearing yesterday, the alarm system designed to detect one of three threats — fire (red), combustible gas (blue) and toxic gas (yellow) — had been "inhibited."
To be clear, the alarm system was not fully disabled, only partially. The decision was made to inhibit the alarm system close to a year ago because of the frequency of "false alarms" waking up the workers in the middle of the night. An inhibited alarm system will send a signal to a central computer if there is a threat, but would not have sounded alarms or sent visual alerts to the crew.
With notoriously shoddy computer systems on board the Deepwater rig, this turned out to be one of a series of grave oversights on the part of BP and the operators of its rig, resulting in one of the greatest environmental catastophes in U.S. history.
My question is this: just how many of the more than 4,000 rigs in the Gulf currently have their alarm systems inhibited or disabled? Perhaps the new Minerals Management Service (MMS) might want to launch an immediate survey of the rigs for the various threat levels and develop a grading system (like the A-B-C of the restaurant industry). If a rig owner fails to improve a rig's rating within six months, the rig's license would be revoked.
Until the U.S. government mans up and creates a system of penalties that actually mean something (not just the minor fines typically administered for disabled alarms, which it turns out are a very common occurrence) we are likely to more Gulf catastrophes. Then I ask you this: whose fault would it be next time?