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Report: Welding Sparked Fatal Black Elk Platform Explosion

Black Elk Energy and certain of its contractors failed to follow safety rules, resulting in the fatal fire and explosion on the company’s platform in the Gulf of Mexico nearly a year ago, according to an investigative report released by the Interior Department's Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) and the United States Coast Guard.

The explosion resulted in the deaths of three contract workers and serious injuries to three other workers on the Black Elk facility, which was located 20 miles southeast of Grand Isle, LA, in about 56 feet of water. Black Elk is headquartered in Houston (see Daily GPI, Nov. 19, 2012).

The accident occurred while a contract worker was welding on an incoming pipe segment to a wet oil tank, the report said. Noting that BSEE has regulations in place to identify what precautions must be taken prior to welding operations in areas or equipment that might contain hydrocarbons, the agency concluded that its regulations were not followed by Black Elk and its contractors. "Accordingly BSEE is proceeding with appropriate enforcement actions,” the agency said.

The report said that Black Elk and certain contractors -- Wood Group Production Services Network, Grand Isle Shipyard, which subcontracted with DNR Offshore and Crewing Services Inc., and Compass Engineering Consultants LLC --  violated a number of BSEE regulations that resulted in the November 2012 explosion. "BSEE will issue incidents of non-compliance to these companies after this report is released."

In a prepared statement, BSEE Director Brian Salerno said the deaths were caused by a number of decisions, actions and failures by Black Elk and contractors retained by the company while conducting construction operations, including:

  • Conducting "hot work" (which includes welding) without taking proper safety precautions;
  • Lack of proper communication among contractors and failure to establish an effective safety culture;
  • Failure to isolate hydrocarbons inside the wet oil tank;
  • Failure of workers to invoke their "no work" authority despite witnessing apparent anomalies; and
  • Failure to conduct a job safety analysis.

Describing the incident, the BSEE said "the ignition started a chain reaction that caused the wet oil tank and two connected dry oil tanks to explode. These explosions caused the three tanks to separate at their bases, launching the wet oil tank and the first dry oil oil tank into the Gulf of Mexico and blowing the second dry oil tank into the air. The second dry oil tank then struck the platform crane and landed back on the  [West Delta Block 32, WD 32-E] platform. The hydrocarbons in all three of the tanks were released onto the platform and into the Gulf of Mexico. The hydrocarbons on the platform subsequently ignited, starting a fire on the platform," the joint report said.

The report recommends that operators at each manned Outer Continental Shelf facility conduct a "safety stand down" of operations to discuss the events that led up to the fire and explosion aboard WD 32-E; improve communications among all workers on the facility; define the chain of command; require all operations and contract personnel involved in hot work to participate together in all safety meetings; and operators, contractors and service companies should review methods for initiating 'stop-work' events.

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