Nearly a year after three Filipino workers died in an oil platform explosion off Plaquemines Parish, the federal offshore safety bureau issued a report Monday blaming operator Black Elk Energy and its contractors for not taking proper precautions, not identifying hazards and for communicating poorly.
“These failures reflect a disregard for the safety of workers on the platform and are the antithesis of the type of safety culture that should guide decision-making in all offshore oil and gas operations,” said Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement Director Brian Salerno in a written statement.
Filipino nationals Ellroy Corporal, Jerome Malagapo and Avelino Tajonera died as a result of the explosion on Black Elk’s West Delta 32E platform, which happened on Nov. 16, 2012. Three others suffered serious injuries and nine people were taken to hospitals by helicopter that day.
The BSEE accident investigation concluded that Corporal probably died instantly from the explosion. The panel found that Malagapo likely died soon after from injuries suffered in the explosion, as did Tajonera, who died six days later in the hospital.
The explosion happened because storage tanks weren’t properly purged of flammable liquid before the crew was cleared to perform “hot work” with torches on nearby pipes, the BSEE investigators found. The pipes ignited because of gas vapors, and the fire spread to three storage tanks, the report said.
The tanks exploded and launched into the air. Two of the tanks ended up flying in the Gulf of Mexico and polluting the water, the BSEE said.
The investigators said that Black Elk and its subcontractors -- Grand Isle Shipyards/DNR, Wood Group PSN, and Compass Engineering Consultants -- didn’t follow federal regulations and also failed to follow Black Elk’s own hot-work plan, which called for a full inspection of any area before welding work was to begin.
Wood Group never determined it was safe to weld, as the plan called for, the report said. In fact, the supervisor for Grand Isle Shipyards told federal investigators that the Compass consultant had said all lines had been purged, but the consultant said he didn't even know hot work was going to be done Nov. 16. And the Wood Group supervisor said if he had known the welding was going to happen, his crews would have made sure the lines were purged, the report said.
And it also said the companies tried to use a single hot-work permit to cover three different locations that were far away from each other, with a single person on fire watch, making it nearly impossible to provide proper safety oversight.
Grand Isle Shipyards, meanwhile, supplied gas detectors but they were never used to check the welding location. Investigators found them still docked in their charging stations after the explosion.
The report notes that no workers invoked their authority to stop work that looked dangerous, but it also said that several workers from Grand Isle Shipyards/DNR feared reprisal if they continued to complain about work conditions. Many of those workers have sued Black Elk and the contractors, and a series of reports by WWL-TV detailed claims that they were victims of human-trafficking.
Salerno met Monday morning with Jose Cuisia Jr., the Philippines Ambassador to the United States, to address the report's findings. Cuisia said the report jived exactly with what Filipino workers had been telling their embassy: That Black Elk and their employers at Grand Isle Shipyards and DNR did not have the same rigorous safety drills as other platforms did.
Cuisia said the report also proved that Black Elk's initial contention that Filipino workers might have had some language difficulties was completely unfounded. Black Elk CEO John Hoffman later apologized for insinuating that the workers were to blame, the embassy said.
"Industry and contractors must follow procedures more strictly, and I know that some companies are doing it, but it has to be done by the entire industry," Cuisia said in an interview with WWL-TV.
Eric Smith, a professor at Tulane's A.B. Freeman School of Business and associate director of the Tulane Energy Institute, said it's harder for smaller independent operators like Black Elk, which has owned Gulf platforms for less than four years, to impose a strong safety culture.
"You had a number of smaller service companies operating under a loose consortium, if you will, trying to do the work as inexpensively as possible," he said. "And that inexpensiveness did not include enough money or overhead to provide proper supervision."
Salerno wants other Gulf operators to learn from Black Elk's failures by reviewing the report and going over lessons learned with their contractors. But Smith says the real lesson of the report is that some smaller companies probably can't afford to meet all of the federal requirements.
"Unfortunately, the biggest takeaway is that if you can't afford to play the game the way the government wants it played, you probably don't belong in the Gulf of Mexico," he said.