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Investigator: BP Wasn't Prepared For Disasters At Deepwater Oil Wells


There was harsh criticism of BP from the witness stand today and tough cross-examination in the lawsuit over the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. An explosion at that oil rig killed 11 people back in 2010 and led to a massive spill. The civil trial is in its second day in U.S. district court in New Orleans. Witnesses for the plaintiffs began their testimony.

And NPR's Jeff Brady was in the courtroom. And, Jeff, who was testifying today? Who took the witness stand today?

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: The first witness was Bob Bea. He's an engineering professor at the University of California, Berkeley. He testified for the plaintiffs. His expertise is something called process safety. Essentially, that's the things a company can do to limit catastrophic accidents like the Deepwater Horizon explosion.

Bea testified that BP didn't have the risk management systems in place that are necessary for the dangerous work of drilling deepwater oil wells. And he knows this because he was consulting with BP on the subject. Bea said he repeatedly warned the company starting in 2003.

He said BP was talking about his recommendations, but not implementing them and by 2007, Bea's warnings were becoming more aggressive. In one note, he said, "you still don't get it. Process safety is deadly serious and you've turned it into a traveling road show."

BLOCK: A traveling road show, were his words. Really strong criticism there of BP. And as we mentioned, there was some rigorous cross-examination that followed, right?

BRADY: Right. BP's attorney, Mike Brock, cross-examined Professor Bea and he pointed out that implementing these process safety programs takes a long time and it's expensive. The lawyer went through a series of indications that BP was developing the kinds of safety systems that Bea advocates for. And as you might imagine, there were plenty of times, while Bea was working for BP, that he gave the company credit for the progress it was making.

And attorney Brock made sure the judge was aware of those times and then he detailed some of the progress BP had made and communications from executives saying that safety was very important to them. At one point, attorney Brock said to Professor Bea, quote, "this doesn't present evidence of a company that is cutting safety corners, does it?"

And Professor Bea answered no.

BLOCK: And later today, Jeff, I understand that a BP executive also took the witness stand. What did he have to say? for much of the day. How many more witnesses are there?

BRADY: Yeah. His name is Lamar McKay and he was the head of BP America when the Deepwater Horizon accident happened in 2010. He was recently promoted, though. Now he's the head of all of BP's exploration and production business. At the trial, one of the plaintiff's lawyers, Robert Cunningham, tried very hard to box McKay into a corner and get him to say that BP was primarily responsible for everything that led to the blow-out at its Macondo well. But Mr. McKay stuck to what has been BP's line all along that this disaster was the result of many mistakes that were made by everyone involved. That includes BP but also its contractors.

BLOCK: And, Jeff, we've talked about two witnesses on this first day of testimony. How many more witnesses are there to come?

BRADY: Oh, there are dozens, at least 53 witnesses. In fact, Judge Carl Barbier said at the end of the proceedings today that he sat down to figure out how long this trial could last at the current pace. He didn't say exactly how long that was but he determined it will have to move along more quickly than this. Judge Barbier says he is committed to wrapping up this trial by the end of May. This is such a complicated case, though. On one side you have the plaintiffs, including the federal government and the five states on the Gulf coast. Their message is pretty uniform, that BP was grossly negligent leading up to this well blowout and oil spill and the company should receive the stiffest penalties.

Then on the other side, you have all the defendants, BP and its contractors, like Transocean and Halliburton, but they're much less unified. While they're countering the claims from the plaintiffs, they're also pointing fingers of blame at each other. So it's not just a one side against the other type of case.

BLOCK: Okay. NPR's Jeff Brady covering the civil trial against BP in New Orleans. Jeff, thanks so much.

BRADY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jeff Brady is a National Desk Correspondent based in Philadelphia, where he covers energy issues and climate change. Brady helped establish NPR's environment and energy collaborative which brings together NPR and Member station reporters from across the country to cover the big stories involving the natural world.
As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.