Search for two missing ongoing after Gulf blast

by on November 17, 2012 1:29 am GMT

Black Elk representatives could not provide any details after repeated calls to its office in Houston throughout the day Friday.

Early reports said two people had died in the explosion in West Delta Block 32. As of 19:30 in Houston, no confirmation of the fatalities was available. The four injured are reported to be in critical condition with severe burns.

The US Coast Guard said in a statement that its personnel were searching for the two missing crew members. It said 11 people had been airlifted from the oil and gas platform to hospitals in Louisiana.

Another nine crew members were safely evacuated from the platform.

The fire was extinguished before noon on Friday.

The Coast Guard said a small oil sheen had been spotted near the platform, which was not producing oil or gas at the time of the explosion. It said the spill was likely to be as little as 28 gallons and the agency did not fear an environmental disaster.

Friday’s blast occurred around 9:00 local time on Friday morning about 20 miles south-east of Grand Isle in about 56 feet of water. The fire reportedly ignited as workers were performing some maintenance work.

“Apparently, and this is early reports and unconfirmed, but perhaps they used a cutting torch instead (of a saw), which then ignited vapours in the pipe that was connected to the wet oil tanks,” the Houston Chronicle quoted Black Elk chief executive John Hoffman as saying. “That ignited the tanks. There was an explosion.”

The Coast Guard said it was searching with response boats and aircraft for the missing crew members. It said the incident is under investigation by the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement. There were 22 people aboard at the time of the blast, the agency said.

Daniel Horowitz, managing director of the Chemical Safety Board, called it “a very serious incident” and said it would launch a full investigation.

“We intend to serve various document requests on the company, Black Elk, to gain more information on it,” he told the Chronicle.

“The fact that people are reported to be fatally injured or missing, the fact that a number of folks are hospitalised, the fact that it involves, as reported , a maintenance procedure on a rig with hazardous materials present — all of those speak to the seriousness of the incident.”

The platform had a production capacity of about 600,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day, according to Hoffman.

Coming just a day after BP was slapped with a record $4.5 billion fine and criminal charges related to the Macondo deep-water disaster, the most recent offshore fire will inevitably draw comparisons to the 2010 incident, which killed 11 men and led to the worst offshore oil spill in US history.

“This incident raises a number of questions about the nature and adequacy of safety measures on this offshore rig,” Reuters quoted US Representative Ed Markey Of Massachusetts, the ranking Democrat on the House National Resources Committee, as saying.

Black Elk holds at least 88 oil and gas leases, according to US government data. Its SEC filings show Black Elk pumped some 14,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day last quarter, Reuters reported.

The company has a recent history of fines and safety issues involving its offshore rigs. BSEE investigated the company as recently as August for an incident in which two employees were dropped 60 feet into Gulf of Mexico waters due to a crane malfunction, according to Reuters. No injuries were reported.

SEC filings also show that Black Elk paid a $300,000 civil fine in September, related to compliance issues revealed during a 2011 site inspection of one of its facilities, the news wire said.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with those who are impacted,” Black Elk said in a statement on its website on Friday night. “We have Black Elk personnel on the scene and en route. We are still collecting information at this time. We will release a statement this afternoon when we have more details.”