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ANDERSON COOPER 360 DEGREES

Sealing the BP Oil Well; Interview With Massachusetts Congressman Edward Markey

Aired July 19, 2010 - 22:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Breaking news tonight: A BP executive says the company is studying a novel way of killing this well once and for all. It's called a static kill, or bull-heading, and would involve pumping mud into it through the outlet valves with the cap still on. We are going to have details on this in a moment and tell you why it may mean we will never get an exact amount or exactly number of how much oil poured out of that well each day.

The good news tonight is that the oil's not flowing. The bad news tonight is that neither is the information. And tonight as always we're "Keeping Them Honest."

We have a right to know what is happening under the water and on the surface. Thad Allen, the government's point man, today ordered BP to provide vital data faster, information on anything unusual about what is really going on down there. He wants that information within four hours.

Given how quickly things can change and how slowly BP has communicated in the past, you're wondering why the government isn't demanding four minutes. But four hours would certainly be an improvement. We have a right to know, after all.

If you've watched our involve, you know we have been exposing BP's stranglehold on information for months now. First it the was the under-reporting the flow rate of oil, then the reluctant release of video of the leak. Then, during the crucially important top kill procedure, 16 hours went by before they informed the public it was on hold. More than 12 hours went by before they even informed Thad Allen.

I could go on and on with examples large and small of BP's lack of transparency. The bottom line that they don't seem to understand is that we have a right to know. For months, we have wondered why, even on critically important operations, we aren't getting real-time information or real-time explanations.

When NASA launches a space shuttle, there's an announcer explaining what is happening second by second. When BP launches an operation, silence. We have a right to know. About three weeks ago, BP sounded like they were going to change.

Bob Dudley, the guy who replaced Tony Hayward as the public face of the company, said this:

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERT DUDLEY, PRESIDENT AND CEO, BP GULF COAST RESTORATION ORGANIZATION: We have had a camera there looking at the oil spill that's coming out of the well from the very beginning. They're done with -- there's about 14 robots down there.

And, sometimes, they move off and other ones are in place. There's maintenance the needs to be done. And we have had well operations where I'm sure some very strange things are happening on the screen, and people can't follow it.

And we talked about that. So, in the coming weeks, as we do additional things around that wellhead and change the flow, we are going to try to put in there sort of a bubbled caption of what people are seeing, how they see it. We're -- we're even talking about one of our engineers maybe having a verbal way of sort of saying, here's what's happening now.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: So, they acknowledge it's confusing. They acknowledge people can't understand what they're actually seeing in that live camera underwater. And that was nearly three weeks ago.

And, yet, like many other promises by BP, that one has been forgotten. They refuse to talk to me, and that's fine. That's their right. But just last night, "The Washington Post" asked BP if a statement made by one of their top officials in the morning was still accurate so many hours later.

And BP spokesman John Curry told "The Washington Post" that they weren't going to be giving real-time updates of what's happening at the well. He said -- and I quote -- "We're not going to provide a running commentary. If there's a change, a release will be issued."

After so many days, after more than 90 days, it is clear that BP views us and you as a nuisance, as an inconvenience, small people who have to be dealt with, but who shouldn't be -- but who should be content being kept in the dark.

We are not content. Tens of thousands of people here have their lives on hold, their futures perched on a precipice. They are desperate for facts and information, and they and we and you have a right to know.

So, if BP is less than completely forthcoming about what's going on, we're going to do our best right now to try to fill in the blanks.

We begin with the breaking news, the static kill, the bull- heading, how it works, what the risks are, and why it means BP may never face an accurate count in court of how much leaked into the Gulf?

Chad Myers joins me now, along with Don Van Nieuwenhuise, director of petroleum geoscience programs at the University of Houston. Chad, explain what -- if you can, what the static kill means, what it looks like, what it is.

CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: If you remember, a couple weeks ago, maybe four weeks ago, they tried to do a top kill, which means that they had boats up on top, ships up here, trying to pump very heavy mud into the top of the wellhead, into the blowout preventer that didn't work in the first place.

What that was meant to do was to take all of this gas and oil and force it, because the mud is so heavy, much heavier than water, and push all of that oil and mud and all of that gas back down into the oil reservoir.

And once you would fill up this column, it would be so heavy that the oil and the gas could no longer come out. Remember, when this thing popped, so to speak, this oil down here is under such pressure, that it artesian well pushed all the way back up into the ocean. And that's why it was spewing. It wasn't being pumped up. It was spewing by itself, because the pressure down below was so great.

So, that was a problem. Why was that a problem, Anderson? Because when they tried to pump the mud in, there was so much pressure coming out, and the holes in those pipes were so big, that all of the oil was coming out. No mud could actually go down.

The mud was just basically thrown into the water with the oil and the gas.

Well, now -- now, Anderson, we have the top stopped. There's no more oil coming out. So, they may take mud, put it back into the choke and kill lines, back into the blowout preventer that died, that didn't work, and now that mud, still heavy isn't going to go that way, but it's going to go that way, because it can fill the void. It can fill the oil and the gas.

The problem is -- and the problem -- the reason why they didn't think about this before is they thought the number for PSI was going to be 8,000. There's no way you can take 8,000 PSI of mud, shove it -- or 8,005, whatever the number would be greater than that -- and shove it back down into the well without bursting lines. You would really -- you could have more problems by trying this with a big number like 8,000.

Well, we know the number isn't 8,000. It didn't get that high. The pressure wasn't that high. So, this new kill procedure is potentially possible. But you have an expert to tell about you that, Anderson.

COOPER: Yes.

Don, hat do you think the chances are that this thing's going to work?

DONALD VAN NIEUWENHUISE, GEOLOGIST, UNIVERSITY OF HOUSTON: This can definitely work. And the way it works -- Chad explained it extremely well -- and what is different here is, in the first case, we had pressure that was active. It was dynamic, pushing on that mud and pushing it out, just as Chad said. Now, in this case, the pressure is static. It's not moving. It's high pressure.

But if you can get the mud into -- let's call that -- the wellbore a vessel, so to speak, that has 6,800 pounds per square in it. Once you get mud into that vessel, the weight of the mud will fall to the bottom of that static pressure control. And once it gets down there and starts to build up, it will displace the oil from the bottom up. And when it does that, it's heavier than the oil and the gas, as Chad pointed out.

And, as it does that, it will actually kill the pressure, and the pressure at the surface where the cap is will be much, much lower, something on the order of 2,500 to 4,500 PSI, instead of 6,800 PSI. So, at the end of the day...

COOPER: So, what are the big risks, Don?

VAN NIEUWENHUISE: There isn't really any risk at this point. The biggest issue that concerns me is that, earlier today, we were told that those flow lines wouldn't handle 6,800 PSI. And now we have been told that they will actually handle that much pressure.

MYERS: Mm-hmm.

COOPER: And, Don, what this also means is that it seems like, if that is successful, we will never actually know the exact number of how much oil was pouring out of there, how many barrels of oil were pouring out of there every single day, correct?

VAN NIEUWENHUISE: Well, the way this procedure would work is, rather than waiting for the intercept of the relief well, what we're going to see is the Macondo number one well filled with mud, and that pressure will control the pressure of the reservoir. And then they will intersect the well and pump mud up from the bottom.

And, if they do that, they would open the cap to allow the cement to displace the mud in the wellbore. And if that happens...

COOPER: It is...

(CROSSTALK)

VAN NIEUWENHUISE: Yes.

(CROSSTALK)

COOPER: Go ahead. I'm sorry.

If that happens?

VAN NIEUWENHUISE: If that happens, then you're never going to get a chance to measure the flow rate. COOPER: We're going to talk to Congressman Markey about that. He has real concerns about that, because, of course, that's a multibillion-dollar equation there that -- because BP is going to be charged based on how many barrels were actually pouring out. And the difference could be tens of billions of -- billions of dollars, if not more than $10 billion.

Don Van Nieuwenhuise, I appreciate your expertise tonight, Chad Myers as well.

Let us know what you think. Join the live chat now under way at AC360.com.

Up next: Congressman Ed Markey with more on BP's incentive to kill this well fast and never let another drop of oil out of it, even if it all goes on to a ship, and not into the water.

And, later, a 360 exclusive: Some of the first-responders to the doomed well, what they saw and felt that fateful moment.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I knew it was bad. I had worked on the water for 20-some-odd years, charter fleet. And we -- we -- we go through man-overboard drills, this and that. I know what a mayday means. It's giving me chills right now.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: BP's live cameras down below.

The breaking news tonight: the company executives now broaching the idea of killing the well in a way that we hadn't heard of before. It's called a static kill. It's a lot like old top kill procedure that failed. But the difference is that, instead of pumping mud into the well as the oil gushed out, it would inject mud with the cap on and the well sealed.

A relief well might then only be needed to confirm that this static kill actually worked. The end result would be a dead well. It would also deprive scientists of a chance to hook the well up to surface ships to finally get a precise reading on the flow rate and thereby measure how much oil is out there in the Gulf, and thereby better determine how much liability BP is exposed to.

The company could end up on the hook for as much as $4,300 per barrel of leaking oil.

I took that up, the measurement question, up earlier tonight with Massachusetts Congressman Ed Markey.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: Congressman, it's obviously great news that this cap is on the well, and that it is holding. But this does mean that we may never know exactly how much oil was pouring out of there, unless, between now and killing off the well, they actually test it by -- by siphoning all the oil onto ships that would then would measure how much would pour out in a day.

REP. EDWARD MARKEY (D), MASSACHUSETTS: We still may have an opportunity to measure the full flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. We still have to monitor this cap in order to make sure it's working.

That's why it's good that Admiral Allen has asked BP to provide a schedule and a plan for full containment. The reason this is important, for every 10,000 barrels per day that BP spilled into the Gulf of Mexico, the fine is $3.5 billion.

If it was 60,000 barrels per day, that would be $18 billion. So, this is no small matter. And if it is possible to measure the containment, to measure the oil flow with precision, then, absolutely, it should be done.

COOPER: A BP spokesman -- I want to talk to you a little bit about transparency, because, all along, we have been suggesting and frustrated at the lack of real-time information that comes out of BP.

They put out press releases hours after something has happened, sometimes 16 hours in the case of the top kill operation, which they had stopped, didn't tell anybody about it for 16 hours, in terms of the American public.

A spokesman for BP yesterday evening basically said, you know, don't expect us to keep you informed every step of the way. We will let you know if there's -- if something has changed. But they're basically just saying, you know, it's not our job to constantly keep you informed. Does that -- is that acceptable to you?

MARKEY: This has just been a continuing pattern of prevarication that has been engaged in by BP since the very beginning. It's completely unacceptable.

It's why we have to keep an eagle eye on everything which they do, because they're intending to lower their liability, at the expense of the livability of the Gulf of Mexico.

COOPER: It did seem a couple -- two or three weeks ago, Bob Dudley, who is basically now running the operation for BP, now that Tony Hayward has sort of been banished to Europe, he indicated they might, you know, be willing to have kind of running commentary over the underwater camera video explaining what's going on, or words on the screen explaining what's going on.

He made that -- that -- that -- he indicated that in this YouTube forum that they have. It was -- it's on tape. We have the tape. But now it's been, you know, two, three weeks later, and they have not done any that. And they're saying, look, we're -- we're -- you know, it's not our job to do that.

MARKEY: If you remember, back in the second or third week, some engineers, I think, at BP invited Woods Hole to come down to measure the flow. And, then, on the day before they were going to go down, they got a call and said, you don't have to come down.

Obviously, the lawyers told them, we don't want an accurate measure of the flow of oil going into the Gulf of Mexico, which is why I pressured BP to put up the camera.

I think the same thing has happened here. What is going on is, they might for a nanosecond try to become a little bit more transparent, but when they go back into the corporate boardroom and they think about it, the idea is nixed every time, and it's been going on for three months with the same pattern.

COOPER: We know there's been seepage, but apparently the government says the cap can stay at least for the next 24 hours, because they're satisfied with the answers they're getting from BP. Are you satisfied?

MARKEY: Well, again, this has to be monitored very closely.

The well, itself, we know has sprung some minor leaks right now, but we have to also watch the floor of the ocean to make sure that the oil is not seeping through the geological formation. So, again, this is just wait and watch.

But we're hopeful. But we're not going to be leaving the scene very soon, because we're never quite sure that BP has done the job conclusively, and we still need them to measure the flow of oil into the ocean.

COOPER: Congressman Markey, I appreciate your time. Thank you.

MARKEY: Thank you.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: Up next: why so many people are angry at the process of trying to get back what BP took from their lives and from their livelihoods.

Later: Even as we're still trying to gather information from BP, another piece of the puzzle: what three fishermen saw the day the rig exploded, shortly after the explosion. They were among the first to arrive at the scene.

Plus, stunning testimony today about big problems leading up to the disaster -- details ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: Well, even as the news breaks tonight that BP is considering trying to kill the well from the top again, this time while keeping the cap on it, there's new information tonight from the company about how few financial claims it's paid to the people in the Gulf -- 114,000 claims have been filed. Just 32,000 claims have gotten one or more payments. They say they need more information to pay on 61,000 claims and are sending out notifications to that effect.

Obviously, not everyone is happy with how BP has been going about it. Start next month, this man, Kenneth Feinberg, takes over. He's the man President Obama named, first to hand out emergency payments, then, 90 days after the well is plugged, to run the 200 -- the $20 billion cash fund agreed to by BP to fully settle claims.

As we said, though, not everybody is happy. Fishermen and fishing boat crews, for one, they have been collecting wages for taking part in the skimming operation. And now they're learning that the government is subtracting the money they're earning from BP from their emergency checks.

We have got a train coming through. So, you're going to hear that for a second.

Income is income, says the government, adding insult to injury, say the boat crews. And then there are these final payments from the $20 billion fund that Mr. Feinberg is pushing. "It's my opinion," he says, "that people would be crazy not to participate."

Yet, all across the region, plaintiff's attorneys are saying just the opposite, because agreeing to a settlement means giving up the right to sue BP.

A lot to talk about tonight. Here joining us now is Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser and Rice University presidential historian Douglas Brinkley.

Billy, I mean, you have been in those meetings where Ken Feinberg makes his pitch to people. Are people satisfied with the idea that they wouldn't be able to sue later on?

BILLY NUNGESSER, PRESIDENT, PLAQUEMINES PARISH, LOUISIANA: Well, they seem to be satisfied that they can get six month pay or this season's pay without signing a release. Then they will calculate how long they think they will be out of work. After the well is stopped for good, they will calculate one to two years, maybe three. They will then offer three years' payment.

(CROSSTALK)

COOPER: So, a fisherman right now who's out of work, he could get, what, six months, you're saying of...

(CROSSTALK)

NUNGESSER: Six months of his lost income without signing a release.

COOPER: OK.

NUNGESSER: Then, if he wants to get compensated for, say -- they say the craft won't be back for three years.

COOPER: Right. NUNGESSER: We will give you three years' pay, but then you will sign a release. Or you can say, I'm going to wait and see what happens over the next two years. Or you can get a lawyer and sue. Those are your options.

If you get that second payment, that one-, two-, or three-year, whatever they say -- and it may be more -- in the case of the oysters, they may estimate it will be five years.

COOPER: Right.

NUNGESSER: But whatever their experts tell them, that's what they will offer as a one-time settlement. And to get that payment, you will have to sign a release.

COOPER: Excuse my cough, please.

Doug Brinkley, does this sound fair to you?

DOUGLAS BRINKLEY, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: No, it doesn't. And I'm very concerned about pulling out a pen and signing that kind of waiver. It is really actually despicable that BP, when we're still in crisis mode in the Gulf South, is trying to get people to sign waivers for existence living for the next year or two, saying, you never can sue BP.

You know, Louisiana has a lot of health hazards before. Some people call Baton Rouge to New Orleans "Cancer Alley." We don't know the toxic results of dumping this kind of dispersants in and then working cleanup around chemicals like this. We have seen things, whether it's people at Yucca Mountain or in the Los Alamos, that later get different kinds of health issues.

Do, to sign away your whole future right now, under duress, by the way BP doing it, is troublesome to me, and I would really urge people in Louisiana to be very careful and make sure you have a lawyer before you sign absolutely anything that this company would put in front of you.

COOPER: But, Doug, I mean, this is what -- for instance, the people who lost loved ones on 9/11, this is a similar procedure. They basically, in order to enter and get reimbursed, they would have to agree not to sue.

BRINKLEY: Yes. And it happens sometimes, but we're in the middle of a crisis. This is not over. This is not a coincidence you're feeling this push here on Monday.

They're trying to play, BP, that this got capped, crisis is over, sign up, life back as normal. It's not life back as normal. Today, "The New York Times" had a stunning, wonderfully written article about Cajun culture disappearing. Are you going to be able to really be a fisherman and do charter boats? Are people really going to come here and not Alaska or Maine, when they know that it's still part of the oil zone? So, BP is braining is a two-year plan. I'm suggesting this spill could be of 10-year, 20-year dimensions. And so people need to take the utmost caution. As you know, on your program, Anderson, BP's not been a good-faith player. They have been a bad-faith player.

So, anything they're shoving in front of people's nose today is in their interests, not in the interests of the people of Louisiana.

COOPER: Billy, the fishermen you talk to, are they surprised to hear that the wages they have been earning, if maybe they're in the vessels opportunity program, that's going to be deducted from whatever money it is they get from the Feinberg...

(CROSSTALK)

NUNGESSER: That was the first time last week in Port Sulphur that that was unveiled, that Ken said that they will go against it.

So, tomorrow night, we have a meeting with BP, with the vessel opportunity, because a lot of people were under the impression they have been on the payroll out their working their boats, wear and tear. They didn't know that was going to be deducted.

And it has a lot of people rethinking their situation.

COOPER: Right.

NUNGESSER: But it definitely will be deducted from their six months, and then ultimately whatever settlement, one, two, three, whatever they estimate they will be out of work, any money earned will be deducted.

COOPER: What do you think is going to happen with figuring out how much oil is actually pouring out, had been pouring out? Because if this static kill operation works -- and certainly everyone wants this thing, this well to be killed -- if that works, then they're not going to be measuring the flow at all.

NUNGESSER: We will never know. You're right. And that's -- you know, we don't know how much oil is out there. We kept hearing there was none below the surface.

Our concerns are that we get this thing capped, it's over, everybody goes home, and, for two years, every three or four months, when the winds are right and the tides are right, bam, we end up with more oil, like you saw in Pass a Loutre, destroying the marsh.

And we need to make sure we have got equipment and manpower here ready on the front line. We saw what happens when you don't have people out there, what it does to the birds and the marsh. We have to be out there and fight this fight until all the oil is gone. And that's going to be a long time.

COOPER: You know, Doug, we have seen it time and again on major stories. A lot of people pay attention early on, but then, when they think it's over, people stop paying attention, and the news media moves on.

As soon as people see oil not pouring out of that well, people think, well, then it's -- the story is done here. The disaster is over. But this thing is going to go on and on and on.

BRINKLEY: Well, exactly. And that's why I was telling people, I think they need to hesitate before they sign anything in a rush that BP's putting in front of people right now.

But health concerns haven't been addressed. When an area is being traumatized, like the Gulf South is, nobody knows the health effects yet. But you're sitting in those kind of waters, working on skimmers on your boats in the long hot hours, we don't know what kind of respiratory diseases could come, for example, in coming years.

So, why does BP need somebody to say, you are never going to sue us over health issues ever? Why would they want to do that? Why not say, look, if somebody gets sick later, we're going to pay again later, too?

So, it's a -- it's -- it's -- to me, it's -- it's disgusting to watch BP trying to quickly get people to sign away and not have health provisions that anybody later, if they got sick from this, can sue BP for medical re-compensation.

COOPER: Doug Brinkley, appreciate it, as always.

And just in case any viewers are wondering, I apologize for my cough. I did not pick it up actually here. It's nothing oil-related.

(LAUGHTER)

COOPER: I actually think I picked it up in Haiti or an airplane.

Billy Nungesser, as well, thank you very much.

Still ahead: A key BP hearing gets under way, very dramatic moments. Right out of the gate, we learned the Deepwater Horizon rig needed hundreds of repairs the night it exploded. And we're going to have the latest on that and the refusal of two BP officials to testify before the panel.

Plus, a 360 exclusive: three fishermen who rushed to help after the rig exploded. They were out on a fishing trip. They heard the mayday call. They were among the first to arrive on the scene. And for the first time, they describe what they saw and heard and found when they reached the fireball in the water.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It was the most chaotic scene you can imagine.

There was people -- some people in shock, some people screaming, some people hurt. I mean, it was just chaotic.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: While BP was continuing tests on its ruptured well today, a key federal hearing began in Louisiana. The panel is investigating the cause of the Deepwater Horizon explosion on April 20, and it's headed up by the Coast Guard and an arm of the Department of the Interior.

Right out of the gate today, some explosive testimony. Joe Johns joins us now -- Joe.

JOE JOHNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Anderson, what we learned today was surprising. The headline at the time of the Deepwater Horizon explosion, the rig was in need of nearly 400 repairs and/or maintenance work that would have taken an estimated 3,500 hours of work.

And here's a surprise. The chief engineer on the rig has no idea if that work was ever completed. The chief engineer for the rig actually works for Transocean, not BP. This is the guy who was responsible for maintaining the power and electrical systems on this rig. In testimony today, confirming the rig had amassed a huge list of apparently unfinished maintenance projects.

The other company on the rig, BP, had actually conducted an audit of needed repairs and maintenance that Transocean was responsible for. But Transocean's chief engineer, Stephen Bertone, couldn't even offer a guess on how much of that work actually had been done before the explosion.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You recall that on page two of the BP audit of September 2009, that you were informed that, quote, "overdue planned maintenance considered excessive. Three hundred and ninety jobs, amounting to 3,545 man-hours," end quote. Do you recall that?

STEPHEN BERTONE, TRANSOCEAN CHIEF ENGINEER: Yes, I recall that.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All right. How many of those 390 jobs, amounting to 3,545 man-hours, were undertaken and completed between September 2009, the date of the rig assurance audit, conducted by BP, and April 20, 2010?

BERTONE: I do not have that number.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: So Bertone made previous statements about what happened on the rig back in April. Those statements were controversial, and today what happened?

JOHNS: Well, the truth is, we don't know everything, because the entire statement -- previous statements were not released. But later the panel asked Bertone questions about the rig's captain, what he did and what he didn't do in the moments after this explosion.

They asked Bertone about that earlier statement he'd given to the Coast Guard, that Captain Curt Kuchta was upset with a crew member for pushing an emergency distress signal and that the captain also ordered another rig worker to leave an injured worker, a man on a gurney, behind on the deck. Bertone says that injured man survived.

Now, this line of questioning got heated, because a few weeks ago, Captain Kuchta himself testified before the commission, but a Transocean lawyer complained bitterly that no one asked him about those allegations then, and he was not there today to defend himself.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NED KOHNKE, TRANSOCEAN LAWYER: If your mission is to include the competency of the captain, then why didn't you ask the captain that question when he was on the stand? Why didn't one single member of the board ask the question of the captain? You had his statement. You had it the day after, but no one in this room asked the question of the captain as to what were the circumstances it would have caused him to say what he said, if in fact, he said it? You're going at this through the back door. That's my objection.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It is not through the back door.

KOHNKE: Why didn't you ask him that question when he was here under oath? Can you answer that for me?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

JOHNS: And Anderson, we're also following what will happen with two BP employees who were on the witness list but are now not expected to testify. Both are BP managers, the two highest-ranking BP officials who were on the rig. One of them, Robert Kaluza, today told the commission he will invoke his Fifth Amendment privilege not to testify tomorrow.

The other top BP official who the commission wants to hear from tomorrow is Donald Vedrene. His name was actually removed from the witness list without explanation. Two interesting things. These officials were expected to testify the last time the panel convened. And Vedrene called in sick. Kaluza did plead the Fifth, Anderson.

COOPER: Interesting. Joe, thanks.

As Joe said, both these men had senior positions at BP, were chief decision makers on the Deepwater Horizon rig. It's obvious why the panel wants to hear their version of events.

Senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin joins us now.

Jeffrey, I think most Americans would find it, you know, surprising that these two BP officials would twice now find a way to avoid the investigative panel. But they certainly can, under -- I mean, everybody can take the Fifth Amendment, right? JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: You know, it doesn't have to be a criminal investigation for someone to take the Fifth Amendment. And certainly, given the fact that a criminal investigation is down the road or starting up, as well, it's really Criminal Defense Law 101 to advise the senior figures, take the fifth, don't give them a chance to charge you with perjury, and that appears to be at least what one of these folks has done.

COOPER: Can you do that indefinitely? And can you keep just calling in sick?

TOOBIN: Well, sick is sick. And if the person is actually sick, they can't be forced to testify. Certainly, the panel can say, "Look, we want to get proof that you're sick, that you're not just dodging us."

Now, in terms of taking the Fifth, looking ahead to the backside of the investigation to when the grand jury, criminal investigation starts, the government can get an immunity order, can say, "You have immunity. You have to testify. You don't have the Fifth Amendment right any more."

But then that person, as a practical matter, can't be prosecuted. So the government has very tough decisions to make about immunity. And certainly, at this early stage, they don't want to start deciding who's a target, who they're going to immunize. So at this point there really is nothing to do except just accept that they're taking the fifth.

COOPER: Before they can start giving -- excuse me -- immunity to people, they have to have a sense of what actually happened before the explosion, to figure out who to give immunity to?

TOOBIN: Absolutely. That's the most important thing. If you give someone immunity, you can't take it back. And once they -- once they actually testify under a grant of immunity, it is effectively impossible to prosecute them.

So prosecutors try to be very judicious and give immunity only in circumstances where they really need the testimony, and they really can accept that this person is going to escape prosecution. And that's a judgment you don't want to make at the beginning of an investigation; only towards the end.

COOPER: Right. All right. Jeff Toobin, definitely we're in the early days of this. Thanks, Jeff.

TOOBIN: Get better, Anderson.

COOPER: Joe following some other breaking news for us -- thanks -- in the "360 News and Business Bulletin."

Joe, what have you got?

JOHNS: Well, Anderson, late word tonight that Shirley Sherrod, the USDA's Georgia director of rural development, has resigned after a YouTube video surfaced showing her describing to an NAACP audience how she withheld help to a white farmer.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SHIRLEY SHERROD, FORMER GEORGIA DIRECTOR OF RURAL DEVELOPMENT, USDA: But he had come to me for help. What he didn't know while he was taking all of that time trying to show me he was superior to me, was I was trying to decide just how much help I was going to give him. I was struggling with the fact that so many black people had lost their farm land. And here I was faced with having to help a white person save their land. So I didn't give him the full force of what I could do.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

JOHNS: In a statement tonight, Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack said, "There is zero tolerance for discrimination in USDA, and I strongly condemn any acts of discrimination against any person."

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton today announced a major aid package for Pakistan, saying the two countries are making progress in overcoming their trust deficit. The U.S. is pledging hundreds of millions of dollars to build dams and power plants and to invest in small businesses.

A new gel shows promise in preventing HIV infections. In a study of nearly 900 South African women, the vaginal gel cut the overall risk of contracting the HIV virus by 39 percent. Women who used the gel the most had even better results. Their risk fell by more than half.

Zsa Zsa Gabor is recovering from hip replacement surgery after a fall at her Bel Air home. According to her publicist, the 93-year-old actress is likely to remain in a Los Angeles hospital the rest of the week.

And take a look at the UFO that shut down an airport in southeastern China for about an hour. The image is from YouKu.com. Whatever it is, it did not show up on radar, according to local reports. And I've got to tell you, if that's real, the first suspect I'd be looking for is the Chinese military. But that's just me.

COOPER: Yes, no doubt about it. Joe, thanks.

Next on the program, allegations that BP is trying to bankroll scientists. Is the company courting experts and paying them to conceal the truth about the disaster?

Also tonight, some of the first responders to the Gulf disaster.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: What did the mayday call say? What did it say?

BRADLEY SHIVERS, FISHERMAN: It said -- you know, we heard, "This is Deepwater Horizon, Deepwater Horizon. Mayday, mayday. We're abandoning rig." (END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: From that mayday call to the mission to save lives, the men who raced to the doomed rig, the exclusive interview and what, if anything, it can tell us about what happened that day, coming up on 360.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: BP is facing hundreds of lawsuits, as you know, including multiple federal lawsuits seeking damages for the environmental harm the oil spill has caused. And like all good defense teams, BP lawyers are scrambling to line up experts to testify in court. That is certainly within their rights to do so. And it's not unusual for expert witnesses to be paid for their testimony.

But BP's pockets are incredibly deep, and payments to expert witnesses come with strings attached, strings that could keep vital information from the public. So are the experts biting? What exactly are the strings?

Randi Kaye tonight investigates.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The contract is short and to the point, just three pages. It's between BP and marine scientists and researchers along the Gulf hired for their expert witness services.

(on camera) It sounds pretty harmless, right? Hardly, say the scientists we spoke who tell us they've been approached by BP. The way they see it: BP is tying up expert witnesses, witnesses who might otherwise testify for the federal government, when the government files its natural resources damage assessment lawsuit.

The scientists also say that BP is trying to prevent the scientists' ongoing research and findings about the spill from being made public.

(voice-over) BP's contracts states all communication between the scientists and BP attorneys should be considered, quote, "privileged and confidential." It also says scientists have to wait three years after they sign the contract to publish their findings, or at least until the natural resource damage assessment is complete.

It is BP's apparent attempt to insulate itself from oil litigation. No matter what the scientists find, good or bad, they can only share it with BP.

Robert Wiygul, a Mississippi environmental lawyer, who has clients with claims against BP, looked over the contract. He says BP is trying to buy silence by taking key scientists out of circulation.

ROBERT WIYGUL, ENVIRONMENTAL LAWYER: The public's going to need the best science that they can get to make sure that the damage from the spill gets fixes, gets compensated for, and that it gets done in the best possible way. And if you lock up the people who know the most about this, who are the scientists and the research institutions down here, the public's not going to get what it ought to out of that process.

KAYE: Texas A&M professor Norm Guinasso says he was contacted by BP within days of the spill to be, quote, "part of their legal defense." Professor Guinasso has been studying oil seeping into the Gulf for 30 years but refused to agree to BP's restrictions, since they would prohibit him from publishing his research.

NORM GUINASSO, DIRECTOR, GEOCHEMICAL ENVIRONMENTAL RESEARCH GROUP, TEXAS A&M UNIVERSITY: They told me I couldn't work for anybody else, that I could not speak out publicly about the oil spill. And I told them I probably was not interested.

I didn't think it was ethical.

KAYE: The professor says BP called again, asking him to reconsider. But again, he turned the company down.

(on camera) It seems BP is shopping for experts all along the Gulf coast. Besides Texas A&M, the University of Southern Mississippi told us BP reached out to hire some of their scientists. They all declined.

And at the University of Southern Alabama, BP tried to hire 60 experts, including marine scientists and graduate students. The university told the oil giant, no thanks.

ROBERT SHIPP, CHAIR, DEPARTMENT OF MARINE SCIENCES, UNIVERSITY OF SOUTH ALABAMA: We laid out the stipulations that we would require if we entered into such an agreement with them. And I guess the main thing was total transparency, anything we discovered, you know, would be available to the scientific community.

KAYE (voice-over): Total transparency, not one of BP's strong suits since the oil began leaking 91 days ago.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: Yes, that's certainly the case. What happened when you reached out to BP for this?

KAYE: Well, we wanted to ask them about the contract. We tried to. And a spokesman told us that he didn't know very much about it, but he would check on it and call us back. And of course, what do you think happen? Do you think we ever heard from them? No. Not exactly feeling transparent today.

We also wanted to ask him about reports that they're paying some of these scientists not only signing bonuses, Anderson, but paying them $250 an hour. It's more than $100,000 a year. Obviously, they're willing to pay whatever they need to to lock these guys up.

COOPER: Very interesting. Randi, appreciate it. We'll continue to follow that angle.

Up next, my exclusive interview with three fishing buddies who were among the first response to the Deepwater Horizon disaster. What they say they saw and did that night will help us -- we'll try -- it's part of our effort to try to figure out what went wrong. And they say it's going to stay with them forever, what they saw.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: What's the thing you keep thinking about?

MARK MEAD, FISHERMAN: Probably the lives that were lost. And could we have done more?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: In tonight's "Big 360 Interview," three fishermen who say they were among the first responders to the oil-rig explosion in the Gulf. For them what began as a fishing trip turned into a nightmare.

They were out in the water on the night the Deepwater Horizon burst into flames. And when disaster struck, they rushed the scene. Here's their exclusive account you won't see anywhere else.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER (voice-over): These images captured by three fishermen among the first to arrive at the Deepwater Horizon after the rig exploded.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: God, look at that, man. Look at how much it is on fire. Holy crap.

COOPER: They set out to fish for tuna, but their trip turned into a rescue operation.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I mean, that shot -- that's 300 feet high in the air, the flames.

COOPER: Scott Russell, Mark Meade and Bradley Shivers were 17 miles away when they noticed a fireball in the horizon. Then they heard the mayday call on their radio.

SHIVERS: We heard, "This is Deepwater Horizon, Deepwater Horizon. Mayday, mayday. We're abandoning rig. We're abandoning rig."

COOPER (on camera): When you heard they were abandoning the rig, what did you think?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, my God.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Get there and go help. I mean, go. MEAD: I knew it was bad. I worked on the water for 20-some-odd years, charter fleet, and we go through man overboard drills, this and that. I know what a mayday means. It's giving me chills right now.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up. You don't hear that.

MEAD: It went from the fireball, and it seemed like forever, but it was seconds. Fireball, mayday.

SCOTT RUSSELL, FISHERMAN: The sonic boom. I mean, when it boomed, it was like a sonic boom.

COOPER: Seventeen miles from the rig, and you felt...

RUSSELL: You felt it. Yes, you did. It shook the boat.

COOPER: Did you know right then, this thing's exploded? Or something's...

RUSSELL: Yes, we know something's bad, and then the Coast Guard said, you know, come on and help.

COOPER: You were headed right for it?

MEAD: Certainly, absolutely. At that point, Scott and I, he was running the boat, started putting fibbing gear away, pulled out every life jacket, our throw pillows, tied ropes to them, got ready.

RUSSELL: Got our life jackets on us. Got our gear on.

COOPER: What did you see when you got there?

RUSSELL: There was people holding onto lifeboats, people in the water, people in lifeboats. It was the most chaotic scene you could imagine. There was people -- some people in shock, some people screaming, some people hurt. I mean, it was just chaotic.

SHIVERS: What I remember is someone yelling at us, "We've got -- I've got friends that are missing." I remember that: "Please go search."

COOPER (voice-over): The three men started searching the waters closer to the rig, looking for any survivors.

SHIVERS: We would get close as we could look with binoculars, through our eyes. And you'd see something floating in the water, and we'd go up and try to -- try to find out what it was. You know, is it a person?

COOPER: They searched in vain until 3 a.m., never finding any more survivors. Now they find themselves thinking constantly about that night.

(on camera) What's the thing you keep thinking about? MEAD: Probably the lives that were lost. And could we have done more? I mean, there's a sense of guilt, even though we did all we could. Could we have done more?

COOPER: What did you say to your wife when you got back?

MEAD: I was crying in her arms. That's -- more than once. Especially at the first few days.

COOPER: And even now, 80 plus days later, it still -- it still brings emotion to it?

MEAD: My anxiety level is so high, that I've gone to a doctor and gotten something for it. And my wife and I -- the most wonderful woman in the world, we don't ever argue. We don't ever have fights. Well, we still don't have fights, but I'm ill and short. And there was one instance where I said, the next day I said, "I've got to go to the doctor and get some help." And I'm on that medication to help with my anxiety. And it's -- it's hard. This has changed -- changed our life.

COOPER: This is not like anything you've ever had to face before? I mean, this experience...

MEAD: My God, no. This is my 9/11, Ground Zero.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: Three fishermen never expected to find themselves on a rescue mission.

More from the Gulf right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)