NEW ORLEANS – Three BP employees pleaded not guilty Wednesday to criminal charges related to the deadly Deepwater Horizon rig explosion and massive oil spill of 2010. Documents obtained by Eyewitness Investigations show there could be some significant problems with the allegations in the indictment of two of those employees.
Federal prosecutors in New Orleans charged the top two BP men on the rig, Robert Kaluza of Henderson, Nev., and Donald Vidrine of Lafayette, with manslaughter for the deaths of 11 fellow rig workers and a criminal violation of the Clean Water Act.
They separately charged BP Vice President David Rainey with obstruction of Congress and false statements for allegedly doctoring measurements of the amount of oil that spilled out of the well after the rig sank and lying to the government.
Wednesday’s arraignment was the first time anyone had seen Kaluza and Vidrine. After invoking his fifth amendment rights for years, Kaluza broke his silence:
“I did not cause this tragedy. I am innocent and I put my trust, reputation and future in the hands of the judge and the jury."
Vidrine did not speak, but his attorney, Bob Habans, said the truth would be on their side.
“They chose Donald Vidrine and Bob Kaluza as the scapegoats for this prosecution,” Habans said. “Donald Vidrine is absolutely innocent of these charges."
The government's central charge is that Vidrine and Kaluza misread a key test of pressure in the well and let the work continue when they should have seen the danger. They saw that the test measured no pressure on a tube in the blowout preventer at the well head (called the kill line) but recorded high pressure (1,400 pounds per square inch) on the drill pipe that ran down into the well hole. The indictment says there’s no way they should have seen those results and believed the well was safe to plug and abandon.
But the indictment also contends that they both failed to speak with their supervisors in Houston about these troubling test results, when the record shows that Vidrine did in fact call the well engineer, Mark Hafle, about an hour before the blast.
It was a story I first broke in May for The Times-Picayune. I had obtained documents that had been filed under seal in the government’s civil case alleging that the spill was the result of gross negligence by BP. BP's own investigators talked to Hafle after the accident and the engineer said Vidrine had called him at 8:52 p.m. on April 20, almost an hour exactly before the second of two massive explosions on the rig.
"Mark said he told Don that you can't have pressure on the drill pipe and zero pressure on the kill line in a test that's properly lined up," read the BP investigator’s notes of an interview with Hafle conducted on July 8, 2010.
"Mark said that he told Don he might consider whether he had trapped pressure in the line or perhaps he didn't have a valve properly lined up. Don told Mark that he was fully satisfied that the rig crew had performed a successful (pressure) test."
Essentially, Hafle was telling Vidrine that the readings could not be correct if the test had been done right. But by the end of the 10-minute phone call, Hafle said Vidrine had approved the test.
By that point, the rig crew had already begun to remove heavy drilling mud from the riser pipe leading from the rig to the well and replacing it with lighter seawater.
That eliminated the last protection against a “kick” of natural gas, which is exactly what then happened, shooting a mile up to the rig above and igniting the deadly fireballs.
Hafle’s retelling of the phone conversation does not settle why Vidrine concluded that the test was successful or why he didn’t halt the process of displacing the drilling mud. But it seems to indicate that the supervisor, Hafle, never told him to stop either.
Now we have another document from the civil case that shows BP investigators' notes from an interview with Vidrine on April 27, 2010. Those quote Vidrine saying: "I talked to Hafle about the 1400 (psi of pressure on the drill pipe). (Hafle) said that if there had been a kick in the well we would have seen it."
Moreover, the notes indicate that Vidrine consulted with senior members of his Transocean rig crew and they assured him that it was something called "annular compression" that accounted for the different pressure readings and that they had seen it many times. Vidrine told the investigators he had never seen the phenomenon before but had heard about it.
Government experts have testified that this annular compression, also known as the "bladder effect," is imaginary and not a legitimate explanation for the pressure readings. Again, the indictment contends that after accepting the "nonsensical" explanation, Vidrine and Kaluza failed to call supervisors on shore to discuss.
It’s unclear why the indictment echoes the BP internal investigation report’s contention that Kaluza and Vidrine never alerted their supervisors about the problems with the negative pressure test. Prosecutors declined to answer questions at Wednesday’s hearing.
Hafle testified previously that he played a role in designing the well – and numerous independent investigations blamed faulty, cost-cutting, time-saving design decisions for precipitating the disaster. Vidrine and Kaluza’s lawyers said the charges against their clients appear to ignore those findings.
“Basically, Don Vidrine's position is much like a superintendent or a foreman on a construction job,” Habans said as Vidrine stood mute at his side outside the federal courthouse. “He's not the architect or the engineer, he didn't design the well and he didn't make the critical decisions in this case."
“Every investigation has said that this occurred as the result of multiple failures at multiple levels in multiple companies,” said Kaluza’s attorney, Shaun Clarke. “It's not our place today to say who or what should be charged. But I will tell you, he (Kaluza) is the scapegoat.”
Kaluza and Vidrine were charged together and their trial has been set for Feb. 4 before U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle. Rainey’s trial has been scheduled before a different judge, U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt, on Jan. 28.
All three defendants were released Wednesday on $250,000 bond and their travel was restricted. Lemelle notified the parties that his wife owned stock in Halliburton, the company whose cement lining allegedly failed to keep the deadly gas out of the bottom of the well. Lemelle’s son also once worked for Halliburton, but not in the cementing division.
Lemelle said that because Halliburton has not been named as a party in any criminal case, he doesn’t see the need to recuse himself from presiding over Kaluza and Vidrine’s trial. But the judge did give the parties until Dec. 7 to ask for the case to be reassigned if they feel he has a conflict. Clarke and Habans declined to say if they have any concerns about the judge at this time.
Also of note, the indictment against Kaluza and Vidrine replaced an earlier indictment that was sealed and has never been disclosed by the government. Habans said he’s never been notified of the earlier charges and complained that his client was not notified of the replacement indictment until a few hours before Attorney General Eric Holder announced the charges in a Nov. 15 news conference.