Investigator calls Gulf platform explosion “very serious”

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board is examining an explosion Friday in the Gulf of Mexico, which a board  official described as “very serious,” after two workers went missing and 11 were injured.

“We do regard this as a very serious incident and we have been following up on it throughout the day,” said Daniel Horowitz, managing director of the Chemical Safety Board. “We intend to serve various document requests on the company, Black Elk, to gain more information on it.”

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

The explosion occurred on a production platform off the Louisiana coast Friday morning.

Construction contractors on the facility were in the final stages of a maintenance job when they were to perform a “clean cut” with a saw on a water line, a procedure that went wrong, said John Hoffman, CEO of Black Elk Energy, which operates  the platform.

“Apparently, and this is early reports and unconfirmed, but perhaps they used a cutting torch instead (of a saw), which then ignited vapors in the pipe that was connected to the wet oil tanks,” Hoffman said. “That ignited the tanks. There was an explosion.”

The platform was capable of producing about 600,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day, Hoffman said.

The explosion occurred on a corner of the facility, with  22 contractors aboard.

Hoffman said boats from nearby oil operations responded to the fire.

The Chemical Safety Board investigates incidents at facilities involving hazardous materials and has examined several instances involving similar maintenance and resulting problems at refineries, chemical plants and oil production sites, Horowitz said.

The board has never examined a similar incident offshore, although it did investigate the Deepwater Horizon explosion that killed 11 workers in 2010. TransOcean, the owner of that rig, has challenged the board’s jurisdiction to investigate that incident in a case that has yet to be decided.

“Certainly we’ll look for any similarities or commonalities with what we understand are the causes of the Deepwater Horizon accident, but we’re way far away from any such determination right now,” Horowitz said.