One body was recovered from the sea floor and divers continued Monday to search for another in the Gulf of Mexico, in the wake of an explosion and fire on an offshore oil platform.
Meanwhile Monday (Nov. 19), the U.S. Chemical Safety Board issued a subpoena to Houston-based Black Elk Energy Offshore Operations LLC, the rig’s owner, seeking details on the company’s safety and environmental management plans and audits by the U.S. Department of Interior.
|U.S. Coast Guard|
Coast Guard crews fight the fire aboard Black Elk Energy's Platform 32. Two Filipino contract workers were missing after the fire; the body of one was recovered over the weekend.
In addition to the worker who died and a second missing and presumed dead, four were in critical condition with burns and three others were hospitalized with other injuries after the blast Friday (Nov. 16) 20 miles southeast of Grand Isle, LA.
The Safety Board called the incident “very serious.” Both that agency and the Interior Department’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement were investigating the accident.
Search and Recovery
Two 87-foot Coast Guard cutters, fixed-wing aircraft, and helicopters searched a 1,400-square-mile area for more than 32 hours in an effort to locate the two missing crew members before suspending the search at 5:25 p.m. Saturday (Nov. 17).
Commercial search crews hired by Black Elk later found the body of one worker in about 30 feet of water near one leg of the platform.
The Philippine Embassy in Washington told the Associated Press that all of the workers were contract workers from the Philippines. The embassy identified the deceased worker as Elroy Corporal, 42.
Authorities said 22 workers had been aboard the platform when the explosion and fire occurred. Two were missing immediately after the blast, nine were evacuated, and 11 were medevaced to area hospitals.
|Worker photo via AP|
Two federal agencies are investigating the incident. Initial reports that the explosion was caused by a cutting torch were later retracted. No cause has been determined.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with those who are impacted,” Black Elk Energy said on its website. “We have Black Elk personnel on the scene and en route. We are still collecting information at this time.”
The Chemical Board subpoena was not unexpected.
“We do regard this as a very serious incident, and we have been following up on it throughout the day,” said Daniel Horowitz, managing director of the Chemical Safety Board, told the Houston Chronicle immediately after the accident. “We intend to serve various document requests on the company, Black Elk, to gain more information on it.”
“The fact that people are reported to be fatally injured or missing, the fact that a number of folks are hospitalized, the fact that it involves, as reported, a maintenance procedure on a platform with hazardous materials present—all of those speak to the seriousness of the incident,” Horowitz told the newspaper.
Separately, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement established a seven-member investigative team that includes safety inspectors, engineers, safety management investigators, and law enforcement experts.
Black Elk Energy said the fire aboard the platform had been extinguished within an hour. The Coast Guard reported “a sheen” in the water, but Black Elk said in a press release that there was “no visible sheen.”
|Black Elk Energy Offshore Operations LLC|
Black Elk Energy announced in October that its board had approved a 23-well, multi-year capital campaign. The company planned to begin driling and major rig work this month.
The company said that between 3.5 gallons and 15.8 barrels of oil spilled and that the platform had been shut in since the summer for maintenance and upgrades.
“This is a heartbreaking event,” Black Elk CEO John Hoffman said in a statement. “Our total focus at this moment is to find the missing workers and care for the injured. We will not let anything stand in the way of these priorities.”
Echoes of 2010 Disaster
The explosion came one day after the Justice Department announced criminal indictments against three BP employees for the Deepwater Horizon explosion and fire of April 2010 that killed 11 workers and unleashed the nation’s worst oil spill ever.
BP will pay a $4.5 billion fine in the case—the largest criminal penalty ever assessed—and plead guilty to 14 criminal charges, including manslaughter.
Unlike the Deepwater Horizon, which operated in mile-deep waters, the Black Elk Energy rig was a shallow-water facility. In addition, the platform is for oil production from an established well, whereas the Deepwater Horizon was drilling an exploratory well. The Black Elk Energy platform was not producing oil at the time of the explosion.