ATLANTA - Weeks before the Deepwater Horizon explosion, oil company BP and subcontractor Halliburton were aware of tests results showing that the cement mixture designed to seal the well was unstable - but they used the mixture anyway, President Barack Obama's special commission investigating the environmental disaster reported yesterday.
The findings shed new light on troubles with the cement job on BP's Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico, which exploded April 20, killed 11 workers and resulted in the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history. The cement secures the well pipes and keeps oil and gas from flowing up the well.
Legal experts said the information could help to bolster plaintiffs cases in the multitude of spill-related lawsuits by helping to show that BP acted with gross negligence leading up to the spill. This could, among other issues, greatly increase the multibillion-dollar penalties BP might have to pay for violation of the Clean Water Act.
"There's no question that it's important evidence," said Charlie Tebbutt, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, which has filed a lawsuit seeking $19 billion under the Clean Water Act. "It serves to confirm the previous reports of significant problems with the exploration and production of the well."
The information was included in a letter to Obama's commission by Fred. H. Bartlit Jr., its chief counsel and represents the first significant findings by the group.
David Uhlmann, a law professor at the University of Michigan who formerly headed the Justice Department's Environmental Crimes Section, said the findings make it appear more likely justice officials will file criminal charges not only against BP and Transocean, the rig's owner, but against Halliburton, the Texas oilfield services giant once headed by former Vice President Dick Cheney.
In the letter, Bartlit said that his team recently asked Halliburton to turn over samples of the cement materials used at the well. The materials were tested by Chevron employees who were "unable to generate stable foam cement," meaning the cement would not be strong enough to keep the well sealed.
A Halliburton spokeswoman said company officials were reviewing the report and were planning to publish a response.