Senate Democrats: Make oil industry pay for inspections

In this undated file photo released by Transocean, the ultra-deepwater semi-submersible rig Deepwater Horizon, which drilled the Tiber well, is shown operating in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico. The federal agency responsible for ensuring that the Deepwater Horizon was operating safely before it exploded last month fell well short of its own policy that the rig be inspected at least once per month, an Associated Press investigation shows. In fact, the agency's inspection frequency on the Deepwater Horizon fell dramatically over the past five years, according to federal Minerals Management Service records. The rig blew up April 20, killing 11 people before sinking and triggering a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

AP Photo/ Transocean, File

In this undated file photo released by Transocean, the ultra-deepwater semi-submersible rig Deepwater Horizon, which drilled the Tiber well, is shown operating in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico. The federal agency responsible for ensuring that the Deepwater Horizon was operating safely before it exploded last month fell well short of its own policy that the rig be inspected at least once per month, an Associated Press investigation shows. In fact, the agency's inspection frequency on the Deepwater Horizon fell dramatically over the past five years, according to federal Minerals Management Service records. The rig blew up April 20, killing 11 people before sinking and triggering a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

— Senate Democrats are calling for the Obama administration to improve inspections of deepwater oil rigs such as the one that exploded last month in the Gulf of Mexico. The lawmakers said oil companies should pay for the emergency inspections, not taxpayers.

The blast killed 11 people and has spilled millions of gallons of oil.

In a letter Wednesday to President Barack Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and other Democrats urged immediate and enhanced inspections of all offshore drilling rigs and platforms that could pose a significant environmental threat.

The letter, signed by the top five Democratic leaders, said inspections by the Minerals Management Service of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig were inadequate. The inspections failed to reveal problems with the so-called blowout preventer, among other problems, the letter said.

The lawmakers called for Obama and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to conduct an "immediate top-to-bottom review of all inspection and testing procedures used to evaluate all offshore drilling equipment," including on offshore rigs and production platforms.

"We need foolproof testing procedures to guarantee equipment integrity, particularly when it comes to equipment like a (blowout preventer) that must act as the last line of defense against disaster," they said.

White House spokesman Ben LaBolt said Interior Department workers were "currently inspecting every deepwater platform in the Gulf," following a directive from Salazar last month.

Kendra Barkoff, a spokeswoman for Salazar, said the Minerals Management Service has completed its inspections of all 30 deepwater drilling rigs in the Gulf. The inspections focused on blowout preventers and on making sure well-control drills were performed as required by regulations, Barkoff said.

Inspectors found violations on two rigs that have since been corrected, she said.

Monthly inspections of working drilling rigs will continue, she added. The minerals agency conducts about 29,000 inspections per year.

On the payment issue, a spokesman for Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., said the federal government should adopt a reimbursement system similar to oil spill cleanup. The Coast Guard and other federal agencies are working to clean up and contain the oil spill, but will be reimbursed by BP PLC, the oil giant that was operating the Deepwater Horizon rig. A similar system could be created for inspections, said Afshin Mohamadi, a spokesman for Menendez.

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Associated Press writer Erica Werner contributed to this report.

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