Three years after an oil platform fire and explosion that killed three men in the Gulf of Mexico, federal prosecutors this week charged Houston-based Black Elk Energy Offshore Operations in a six-count bill of information that alleges multiple safety violations led up to the accident.
The bill, filed Tuesday in federal court in New Orleans, mirrors many of the same findings outlined in 2013 by a panel of oil and gas experts from the federal Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement and the Coast Guard, who blamed the November 2012 disaster on “a number of decisions, actions and failures” by Black Elk and its subcontractors handling the platform work.
Among its findings, the panel blamed the accident on inadequate planning and communication; a lack of functioning gas detectors near the platform’s welding areas; pipes that contained oil when they were thought to be empty; a poorly trained welding crew and a supervisor with minimal training; and a general lack of a safety culture at Black Elk.
The investigation found that the platform’s oil storage tanks weren’t emptied ahead of the welding work. Vapors from the tank ignited, causing an initial explosion followed by a series of additional explosions in three of the platform’s oil tanks, according to the indictment. Three Filipino welders were killed; three others were seriously injured.
Following its 2013 investigation, BSEE recommended sanctions against Black Elk as well as Lafayette project management company Compass Engineering, Galliano construction company Grand Isle Shipyard and production platform management company Wood Group.
The three welders who died worked for Grand Isle Shipyard.
“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,” BSEE Director Brian Salerno said in 2013.
The bill of information’s six counts include five safety violations of the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act as well as one count of violating the federal Clean Water Act, stemming from an estimated 480 barrels of oil and water that were spilled into the Gulf after the accident.
A lawyer for Black Elk, Matt Chester, declined comment Wednesday.
Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.