Contractors blamed in Black Elk incident report

August 27, 2013

Black Elk Energy has released a new, third-party investigative report concerning the fire and explosion on the West 32-E platform that killed three contract workers. The findings take a hard look at the contractors involved in maintenance operations prior to the incident.

In its newly completed report, ABSG Consulting, part of the ABS Group of Companies, concludes that contractors working on a shallow-water Gulf of Mexico oil production platform, operated by Black Elk Energy Offshore Operations LLC, failed to follow standard safety practices.

Houston-based Black Elk Energy hired ABSG to independently investigate the cause of an explosion and fire at the West Delta 32-E platform that resulted in the deaths of three contract workers on November 16, 2012.

The eight-month investigation, which was conducted in coordination with the US Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), included 11 investigators who reviewed thousands of documents related to the incident, including photographs, design schemes, operational records, permits, emails, and other material.

The report names Wood Group PSN (WGPSN), Grand Isle Shipyard, and Grand Isle Shipyard’s subcontractor DNR Offshore, for failing to adhere to proper safety protocols.

When reached for comment, Wood Group issued this statement: “Safety is our highest priority at Wood Group because lives depend on it. We are committed to preventing injuries to our people and everyone we work with.  We will continue to review our procedures regularly and to provide our people with the training, knowledge, and tools they need to work safely and prevent future accidents.”

Black Elk Energy contracted with Grand Isle Shipyard to perform the construction work. The ABSG report said that although Grand Isle committed, in its contract, to not use subcontractors on Black Elk Energy projects, all of the workers performing the welding involved in the incident were employed by DNR Offshore and Crewing Services, a subcontractor of Grand Isle.

Three construction projects were performed on the day of the incident at different locations on the West Delta 32 platform, according to ABSG’s report. One of them involved installing a new piping connection on the main deck between the LACT divert valve and the sump discharge line connected to the wet oil tank (the LACT project). The LACT project was overseen by Grand Isle Shipyard. Because these work activities can produce sparks, WGPSN needed to approve a hot work permit in order for work to proceed.

According to the ABSG report, WGPSN’s person-in-charge (PIC) or his designee issued the hot work permit despite not viewing the area where work would be performed. 

ABSG found that while production was shut-in on the platform, DNR Offshore workers welded a flange on open piping leading to an oil tank that contained flammable vapors. The piping leading to the tank had not been isolated and made safe for welding activities as required by Black Elk Energy safe work practices.

According to the report, flammable vapors in the piping ignited and within seconds reached the first oil tank and then two connected tanks. All three of the tanks failed at the shell-to-bottom seam, resulting in a fire on the West Delta 32-E platform; two of the tanks were propelled off the platform deck into the water. Three Philippine nationals employed by DNR Offshore, who were welding or were present near the welding activities, were killed. Two other DNR Offshore employees working on the LACT project were injured, but both survived.

The ABSG report also found that Grand Isle and DNR Offshore employees failed to adequately follow safe work practices and failed to stop work when unsafe conditions existed. According to the report, one DNR Offshore worker, who had cut the common sump discharge pipe with a pneumatic saw, did not stop work even after a clear liquid drained out of the line. Just before the tack welding began on the flange and piping, workers did not stop work even after smelling “a strong odor of gas.”

In November, Grand Isle Shipyard CEO Mark Pregeant disputed Black Elk Energy's claim that hot work onboard the platform caused the accident. “Those gentlemen did not cut the wrong line,” Pregeant said in statement released by the US-Philippine Consulate. ‘These gentlemen did not cut that piece of pipe with a torch.”

A copy of the ABSG report has been made available to BSEE and is also available online:

BSEE spokeswoman Eileen Angelico said the report is currently being reviewed by the agency. “BSEE's investigation of the incident is ongoing, and a full report will be published when the investigation has been completed,” she said.

Photos: US Coast Guard

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