Washington, DC — A fire sparking an explosion on an oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico last November is still under investigation, according to documents posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The federal safety agency states that it has no fixed timeline for completing its inquiry pinpointing the accident’s cause yet has ordered the company to improve its safety performance.
On November, 16, 2012, a fire broke out on a shallow-water oil platform operated by Black Elk Energy. That fire apparently triggered an explosion which killed three workers and injured 11, including four hospitalizations, from a 20-member crew. In a letter dated November 21, 2012, the federal offshore safety agency, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), sent Black Elk a strongly worded letter, placing the company on a “performance improvement plan” but applied no further penalty. Nor did the letter identify any specific safety practice the company needed to improve.
On November 19th, PEER submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for a number of documents, including the latest BSEE inspection report for the crippled rig, permit conditions, risk assessments and any after-explosion analyses. Over the succeeding months, BSEE produced very little information but, ultimately, in a letter dated June 20, 2013 declared that it had nothing more to give, stating:
“Since the Black Elk panel investigation is still ongoing, the documents you requested do not exist at the present time. Also, due to the amount of time it will take to complete the investigation, we cannot estimate when the documents will be available.”
“After more than seven months, the lead federal safety agency cannot say what happened or why or even when it might be able to offer a clue,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “Prevention of future rig blasts is problematic when the cause of the Black Elk explosion has yet to be established.”
The explosion took place days after a BSEE inspection resulted in citations against Black Elk for 45 violations. Agency records show that safety violations by the company ballooned from 99 to 158 between 2011 and 2012. Despite the fatal fire and the cascade of citations BSEE issued even more permits to Black Elk for a third more drilling rigs in the Gulf, raising the number of the company’s operating rigs in the Gulf to 98 from 65 the year before.
“The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement was created in the wake of the 2010 BP Gulf disaster to, as its name implies, strengthen enforcement of safety and environmental safeguards,” Ruch added. “The Black Elk explosion experience suggests that BSSE has yet to live up to its name.”
Mounting frustration about the inability to get timely information on oil industry mishaps has renewed calls for the creation of a Gulf of Mexico Regional Citizens Advisory Council, modeled after a similar panel created in Alaska following the Exxon Valdez debacle.