Skip to Content
Skip to Navigation

Clear it with SidneyHow our blog got its name >

 
Notes on journalism for the common good
by Lindsay Beyerstein

How our blog got its name

Sidney Hillman was a powerful national figure during the Great Depression, a key supporter of the New Deal, and a close ally of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

When the rumor spread that President Roosevelt ordered his party leaders to “clear it with Sidney” before announcing Harry S. Truman as his 1944 running mate, conservative critics turned on the phrase, trumpeting it as proof that the president was under the thumb of “Big Labor.”

Over the years, the phrase lost its sting and became a testament to Hillman's influence.

It's hard to imagine a labor leader wielding that kind clout today, but we like the idea—and we hope Sidney would give thumbs up to our blog.

Close window

Winners & Sinners : 60 Minutes Scoops the World

 

The week’s Biggest Winners: 60 Minutes producers Solly Granatstein and Graham Messick, and correspondent Scott Pelley, for the most revealing story anywhere about the catastrophic oil rig explosion in the Gulf.

   It’s a very rare event, nowadays, when a network news division scoops everybody else on the biggest story of the moment, but that’s exactly what 60 Minutes did last night, when it found  two key people who could blow the Deepwater Horizon story wide open. 60 Minutes did not draw this conclusion, but the implication of criminal malfeasance by BP permeated the broadcast.

   Mike Williams was the chief electronics technician, working for Transocean on the rig, and he exudes the kind of all-American-Atticus-Finch-authenticity that makes him a uniquely credible witness.  He was also one of the last men to leave the rig alive.  His appearance on the double-length 60 Minutes segment was edge-of-your-seat television from start to finish.   According to the overnights, 11.5 million viewers tuned in.

    Williams said he was pinned down by two different three-inch-thick, steel, fire-rated doors–after each of them was blown off its six stainless steel hinges by successive explosions on the rig–before he finally managed to get outside and jump one hundred feet into the ocean.

    After he hit the water, Williams thought, “I must have burned up, 'cause I don't feel anything, I don't hear anything, I don't smell anything. I must be dead.' And I remember a real faint voice of, 'Over here, over here.' I thought, 'What in the world is that?' And the next thing I know, he grabbed my lifejacket and flipped me over into this small open bow boat. I didn't know who he was, I didn't know where he'd come from, I didn't care. I was now out of the water.”

    But just as dramatic as Williams’ survival is his account of the successive mishaps on board the giant rig that led inexorably to the final catastrophe.  These were the story’s key findings:

* The tension in every drilling operation is between doing things safely and doing them fast; time is money and this job was costing BP a million dollars a day. With the schedule slipping, Williams says a BP manager ordered a faster pace–bumping up the rate of penetration of the ocean floor.

 *Going faster caused the bottom of the well to split open, swallowing tools and the drilling fluid called "mud." "We actually got stuck. And we got stuck so bad we had to send tools down into the drill pipe and sever the pipe," Williams explained. That well was abandoned and Deepwater Horizon had to drill a new route to the oil. It cost BP more than two weeks and millions of dollars

*  Williams says there was an accident on the rig that has not been reported before. Four weeks before the explosion, the rig's most vital piece of safety equipment, its blowout preventer, or BOP, was damaged.

* The BOP is used to seal the well shut in order to test the pressure and integrity of the well, and, in case of a blowout, it's the crew's only hope. A key component is a rubber gasket at the top called an "annular," which can close tightly around the drill pipe.

* While the BOP was shut tight, a crewman on deck accidentally nudged a joystick, applying hundreds of thousands of pounds of force, and moving 15 feet of drill pipe through the closed blowout preventer. Later, a man monitoring drilling fluid “discovered chunks of rubber in the drilling fluid.”

* Williams asked the supervisor if  the chunks of remember were unuusal, and he said, “‘Oh, it's no big deal.'"  And Williams thought, "How can it be not a big deal? There's chunks of our seal is now missing.”

*The BOP is operated from the surface by wires connected to two control pods; one is a back-up. Williams says one pod lost some of its function weeks before the explosion.

* A representative of Transocean was explaining how they were going to close the well when the manager from BP interrupted.  "I had the BP company man sitting directly beside me," Williams remembered.  "And he...said, 'Well, my process is different. And I think we're gonna do it this way.' And they kind of lined out how he thought it should go that day. So there was short of a chest-bumping kind of deal.”

* Several BP managers were on the Deepwater Horizon for a ceremony to congratulate the crew for seven years without an injury. While they where there, a surge of explosive gas came flying up the well from three miles below. The rig's diesel engines, which power its electric generators, sucked in the gas and began to run wild.  After that there were “take-your-breath-away type explosions, shake your body to the core explosions. Take your vision away from the percussion of the explosions."

* 60 Minutes asked Dr. Bob Bea, a professor of engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, to analyze Williams’ story. The White House has also asked Bea to analyze the Deepwater Horizon accident.  Bea previously investigated the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster for NASA and  Hurricane Katrina  for the National Science Foundation.

* "According to Williams, when parts of the annular start coming up on the deck someone from Transocean says, ‘Look, don't worry about it.' What does that tell you?" Pelley asked Bea.

"Houston, we have a problem," Bea replied.

* "So if the annular is damaged, if I understand you correctly, you can't do the pressure tests in a reliable way?" Pelley asked.

"That's correct,” Bea explained. "You may get pressure test recordings, but because you're leaking pressure, they are not reliable."

*In finishing the well, the plan was to have a subcontractor, Halliburton, place three concrete plugs, like corks, in the column. The Transocean manager wanted to do this with the column full of heavy drilling fluid - what drillers call "mud" - to keep the pressure down below contained. But the BP manager wanted to begin to remove the "mud" before the last plug was set. That would reduce the pressure controlling the well before the plugs were finished.

*Asked why BP would do that, Bea told Pelley, "It expedites the subsequent steps."

"It's a matter of going faster," Pelley remarked.

"Faster, sure," Bea replied.

Bea said BP had won that argument.

* "If the 'mud' had been left in the column, would there have been a blowout?" Pelley asked.

"It doesn't look like it," Bea replied.

*Weeks before the disaster they know they are drilling in a dangerous formation, the formation has told them that," Pelley remarked.

"Correct," Bea replied.

"And has cost them millions of dollars. And the blowout preventer is broken in a number of ways," Pelley remarked.

"Correct," Bea replied.

* Asked what would be the right thing to do at that point, Bea said, "I express it to my students this way, 'Stop, think, don't do something stupid.'"

*  They didn't stop. As the drilling fluid was removed, downward pressure was relieved; the bottom plug failed. The blowout preventer didn't work. And 11 men were incinerated. One hundred and fifteen crewmembers survived.

The Bottom Line:
Who is responsible for the Deepwater Horizon accident?

Bea said, "BP."

-----

Winners: Stephen Colbert and veteran Daily Show correspondent Lewis Black for doing what the mainstream press consistently fails to do: giving Glenn Beck exactly the treatment he deserves.  Black focuses on Beck's Nazi Tourette Syndrome, while Colbert describes Beck's pornographic plan to gather his supporters on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial next August--on the anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech.

See them both below:

  

The Colbert Report Mon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Glenn to the Mountaintop
www.colbertnation.com
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor Fox News

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Back in Black - Glenn Beck's Nazi Tourette's
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor Tea Party

Comments

The details 60 Minutes and FCP provided about the lunatic decisions that caused the oil spill are fascinating and depressing...Which made the riffs by Stephen Colbert and Lewis Black about Glenn Beck a hilarious and needed comic dessert.
Syd Schanberg

 
 

Recent Tweets

RT @Bob_Ortega: Toronto Star uncovers defective drug trials, via @SidneyHillman http://t.co/AspfKsxxiK 1 day 19 hours ago
#Sidney's Picks: Trains, Death, & The Scots: http://t.co/UYtZNPeXZd 1 day 23 hours ago
Rare giant panda triplets open eyes for first time – video: http://t.co/4OcBAONuaS 3 days 2 hours ago
American Airlines, US Airways Workers Vote Overwhelmingly To Join Union http://t.co/bmYPDPVy8X via @HuffPostBiz 3 days 19 hours ago
Business insider names @PointofInquiry as one of 9 podcasts to make you smarter: http://t.co/yWhGWJZ8ko 4 days 2 hours ago