Philippines ambassador questions new U.S. safety offshore workers rules

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wwltv.com

Posted on October 31, 2013 at 10:18 PM

Updated Thursday, Oct 31 at 10:20 PM

David Hammer / Eyewitness News
Email: dhammer@wwltv.com | Twitter: @davidhammerWWL

NEW ORLEANS -- The Philippines ambassador to the United States on Thursday told WWL-TV that he has grave concerns about the death of a Filipino offshore worker off the Louisiana coast this week, questioning the safety practices of American oil field service firms and criticizing the worker’s Houma-based employer and his Philippines-based recruiter for their lack of responsiveness.

The federal offshore safety agency, meanwhile, responded by promising to impanel experts to investigate the oil platform accident that claimed the life of Peter Voces, 38, in the Gulf of Mexico this week.

Voces, a welder from the town of Gumaca, Quezon Province south of Manila, plummeted to his death Sunday evening when he was working to dismantle an idle oil platform about 55 miles off the central Louisiana coast.

He was the fourth Filipino to die off the Louisiana coast in the last 12 months.

“This tragedy comes almost a year after a similar incident at another offshore oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico claimed the lives of three Filipino oil workers and seriously injured three others,” Ambassador Jose L. Cuisia Jr. said in a written statement Thursday morning. “In light of these events, the Philippine Embassy would like to express its deep concern over the safety of Filipinos working in offshore facilities in the United States.”

In an exclusive interview with WWL-TV from Washington, Cuisia complained that the companies that hired Voces, both in the Philippines and in Louisiana, were not cooperating with his embassy.

“We have been trying to get information from both Offshore Specialty Fabricators and 88 Aces Maritime (Services), both of whom are employers, one here in the U.S. one over in the Philippines, (and) they have refused to provide us information that would enable us to contact the family,” Cuisia said.

Voces and other platform workers were employed by a derrick barge contractor, Houma-based Offshore Specialty Fabricators LLC, and that company has not responded to any of WWL-TV’s requests for comment over the last four days.

The embassy says Voces left behind a wife and three children in the Philippines. Cuisia’s staff is trying to work with Offshore Specialty Fabricators to repatriate Voces’ remains 88 Aces Maritime Services is the manning company in the Philippines that sent Voces to Offshore Specialty.

“We are lamenting the lack of cooperation of these firms,” Cuisia said.

The federal Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, meanwhile, says it will get to the bottom of what caused the accident.

“My sincerest condolences go out to the family of Mr. Voces,” BSEE Director Brian Salerno said in a statement. “We are assembling a panel of experts who will conduct a thorough investigation into this tragic incident. We are committed to a complete investigation to identify the cause of the incident and to identify approaches to enhance the safety of future operations.”

Three Filipinos died November 16, 2012, in an explosion on a Black Elk Energy platform near the mouth of the Mississippi River, in the West Delta 32 lease block. It also severely injured three other Filipinos. They were cutting a pipe that apparently had not been flushed of flammable liquids, but there are conflicting reports about who gave the experienced welders the go-ahead to use torches to cut the pipe.

WWL-TV’s lengthy Eyewitness Investigation uncovered a pipeline of human trafficking, with immigration paperwork allegedly based on lies, and workers holding numerous and fake social security numbers. We found a number of other possible violations, from immigration policies to labor and workplace standards.

BSEE spokeswoman Eileen Angelico said Thursday that another investigative panel has been reviewing the Black Elk incident and is “nearing completion on its report.”

One of the workers who was severely injured in that accident, Renato Dominguez, sued Black Elk and its contractors in Galveston County court in Texas this week, alleging they didn’t properly supervise or protect the workers and didn’t go over proper safety procedures.

That worried Cuisia, who spoke to WWL-TV from Washington.

“We are told of course that BSEE has come up with new requirements” for offshore operators, Cuisia said. “And we are hopeful that these companies also require their contractors to follow the same safety procedures.”

BSEE has required only two Gulf oil and gas operators to file Performance Improvement Plans because of their problematic safety records: Black Elk and Energy Resource Technology GOM. Black Elk was put under the special scrutiny after the deadly accident last year. ERT, meanwhile, is the owner of the platform where Voces died, but was already on the special watch plan because of a fatal crane accident in 2011 and a gas leak in July of this year.

“The fact that they are both involved in accidents that have impacted Filipino workers, we are very concerned,” Cuisia said.

Details about this week’s accident on the ERT platform are still sketchy. ERT’s parent company, Houston-based Talos Energy, said through a spokesman earlier this week that an empty storage container also fell off the platform and into the Gulf waters, which are about 100 feet deep around Platform A in the Vermilion 200 lease block.

The spokesman, David Blackmon, added Thursday that Talos and ERT are ready to cooperate fully with the BSEE investigation.

“The safety of people is always our highest priority, and we will be focused on the safety of our employees and our contractors throughout the investigation,” he said.

 

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