Thursday, May 06, 2010

Nostalgic in all the wrong ways: blowout-preventer edition

The Deepwater Horizon spill--probably the most catastrophic environmental disaster of the past 50 years, excepting possibly Chernobyl--was apparently caused by failure of one of these:

This is a blowout-preventer, a massive hydraulic-powered valve used for sealing an oil well and regulating the flow. They are

When I read, two days ago, that the spill was caused by one of these failing, a mile down, I was chilled. I used to repair these, for Cactus Drilling Company in Midland, TX, in 1979-80.

A blowout-preventer is subjected to huge pressures, as well as to highly corrosive acids, salts, and other outflow from a well. It doesn't come up as only crude: there are all kinds of other substances in such a flow. So the blowout-preventer can only be used for a relatively short period of time, before the well has to be temporarily shut down and the preventer replaced.

They used to come into the repair yard where I worked, with the huge rubber gaskets in rags and most of the heavy-duty lead-based sealing paint corroded off (for scale's sake, the BOP pictured above is a "small", and is substantially taller than a man). We'd sand- and water-blast them, paint them with an acid-based paint-remover (which you had to keep off your skin, as it would burn you), break-loose the giant bolts that seal them: bolts as big as my arm, often rusted solid--I still have a big dent on my right shin from where a 12-foot "cheater pipe"--additional lever arm--shattered while we were trying to open a bolt.

Then we'd take them completely apart, wash all the components in an acid bath and discard any that seemed unrepairable, replace the parts and gaskets, re-paint 'em, and stick them on a hydraulic test-bed, where we'd crank up to a pressure as high as 1 ton per square inch (we were supposed to stand outside the steel-reinforced room as we did this, but often didn't). Then, when we'd confirmed that the repairs were complete and safety-secure, we'd call the truckers and they'd come pick up the BOP, to store in the yard until re-used.

When I read, two days ago, that the spill had been caused by a BOP failure, Dharmonia said "yeah, I read that a while ago but I didn't want to tell you"--which was smart, because when I saw it, I nearly fainted.

I would not want to be one of the crew who might have sent that particular piece back out to the platform.

Eleven guys died. BP and Halliburton (Dick Cheney's butt-buddies--the same people who betrayed American soldiers in the Iraq theatre on a daily basis) may well have killed the Gulf Coast--permanently.

Some corporate crime ought to carry capital penalties.

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