BURNING QUESTION REMAINS

  • Article by: STEPHEN J. LYONS , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 25, 2011 - 10:46 AM

A look at the causes of the Gulf disaster, at the men who died there and what, if anything, we learned from the experience.

Fire on the Horizon by John Konrad and Tom Shroder

Lost in the universal condemnation of British Petroleum for its role in last April's historic and horrific 185-million-gallon oil spill in the Gulf was much national mention of the deaths of 11 men. The men, who died as a result of the explosion and fire on the Deepwater Horizon rig, all lived in states that border the Gulf. They left behind 15 children. The men loved NASCAR, hunting and fishing, four-wheeling and Louisiana State University baseball. Because the pay was more than they could make on land, they accepted the long sojourns away from home and the risky work on unstable platforms in the middle of unpredictable seas. A year later questions remain, foremost among them, could this catastrophe and the deaths of these men have been avoided?

"Fire on the Horizon" provides most of those answers, and the findings of its authors reveal that the pressure to satisfy our unquenchable thirst for oil too often trumped safeguards that might indeed have prevented this ecological nightmare. Longtime rig captain John Konrad and former Washington Post editor and writer Tom Shroder team up to memorialize the oil rig workers and to painstakingly detail the events that led to the nation's worst environmental disaster. The writing is frustratingly technical at times but well worth the effort to learn that we are at risk for more oil spills.

Mistakes add up quickly at sea, where salt corrodes pipes and maintenance is too often deferred. The Deepwater Horizon was due to go into dry dock this year. In an independent assessment not long before the explosion, hundreds of items that needed maintenance were identified. The inspectors also noted "the blowout preventer was significantly overdue for its five-year inspection." This critical piece of equipment that does exactly what its name indicates -- preventing oil from leaking back out in an emergency -- would ultimately fail. It took six months to cap the 5,760-acre Macondo wellhead.

Time was money to the BP bigwigs, and that pressure was made clear to the crew of the Deepwater Horizon. Another survey, this one confidential and commissioned by the owner of the rig, Transocean, found that many workers "worried that the quest to keep drilling always trumped the need for maintenance, forcing them to work with equipment that was becoming unsafe to use." Additionally, half the men felt constrained from speaking out for fear "they'd face serious reprisal."

No wonder, then, that there are "thousands of serious oil-related incidents each year." The Minerals Management Service (MMS) is the federal agency tasked to investigate such occurrences. It is hardly reassuring that in this era of deregulation, the MMS had just 60 inspectors.

"Fire on the Horizon" is dedicated to the 11 men who died. The authors make it clear that these were highly trained men who took pride in their vocation. Jason Anderson, whose final day on the Deepwater Horizon was to be April 20 -- the day of the explosion that ultimately killed him -- loved his work.

"But on this well," as the authors report, "he was feeling the pressure. Doing things right, the way he had taken such pride in learning, sometimes meant taking more time."

Tragically, in the mad rush to supply us with the fuel to run our lives, Anderson was not afforded the necessary time to do his job.

Stephen J. Lyons' new book is "The 1,000-Year Flood: Destruction, Loss, Rescue, and Redemption Along the Mississippi River."

  • FIRE ON THE HORIZON

    By: John Konrad and Tom Shroder.

    Publisher: Harper, 270 pages, $27.99.

    Review: This deep look at the Gulf spill and the men who died is frustratingly technical at times. But it reveals a long record of deferred maintenance and makes the case that we are vulnerable to future spills.

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