Federal officials intensify platform inquiry

By Simone Sebastian

Federal officials deepened their probes Monday into the safety and procedures aboard a Gulf of Mexico oil platform where an explosion and fire last week left one worker dead and another missing.

Elroy Corporal, 42, was killed in the fire and four other workers remain hospitalized with severe burns three days after the blaze on the platform operated by Houston-based Black Elk Energy. Black Elk said Monday that it would continue searching for another missing worker throughout the night.

Corporal and the injured workers were among several Filipino employees of Grand Isle Shipyard, a Galliano, La.-based contractor that was performing maintenance work on the platform about 17 miles southeast of Grand Isle, La., when the fire broke out.

Grand Isle Shipyard is the target of legal action by former employees who say they were recruited from the Philippines, paid unlawfully low wages and subjected to poor living and working conditions.

On Monday, federal investigators issued a broad subpoena to Black Elk Energy in connection with the fatal fire. In the subpoena, the Chemical Safety Board, an independent federal agency that probes industrial accidents, raised a question about the use of combustible gas detectors on the platform.

That equipment, common on offshore facilities, can alert workers to the presence of flammable vapors.

Investigators with the Bureau of Safety and Energy Enforcement were aboard the platform Monday collecting physical evidence and interviewing workers to determine what caused the incident.

The bureau also is overseeing the cleanup of residual oil that could spill into the Gulf of Mexico if washed away by rain or sea spray.

The agency can force companies to suspend operations, cancel their leases and impose fines of up to $40,000 per incident per day.

Black Elk CEO John Hoffman said Friday that the fire started when a pipeline was severed, possibly with a cutting torch that could have ignited oil vapors in the line.

Grand Isle Shipyard CEO Mark Pregeant, however, rebutted that explanation in a written statement Monday.

“The cause of the explosion and fire is unknown at this time,” Pregeant said. “Initial reports that a welding torch was being used at the time of the incident or that an incorrect line was cut are completely inaccurate.”

Oil production on the platform had been shut down since August for maintenance.

Twelve of Grand Isle Shipyard’s workers received hospital care. Four remain hospitalized in Baton Rouge General’s regional burn center. Two are in critical condition, and one is in serious condition. The fourth worker, Wilberto Ilagan, 50, is in good condition, according to a hospital statement.

Identities of the other workers have not been released.

According to the Embassy of the Philippines, the workers were recruited by D&R Resources, a Louisiana company that is named along with Grand Isle Shipyard in a federal lawsuit filed by former employees last year.

D&R Resources recruited about 150 welders, scaffolders, riggers and others hired in the Philippines to work on Gulf of Mexico oil facilities, according to the embassy.

The lawsuit alleges that the companies recruited skilled Filipino workers with promises of high wages and comfortable working environments.

“When they got here, they were subjected to very poor living conditions, extremely long working hours and many of them were working 12-plus hours a day,” said Lori Mince, a New Orleans attorney representing the workers.

Grand Isle Shipyard did not return calls seeking comment. D&R Resources could not be reached.

Mince said about 30 former workers have filed claims against the companies, though attorneys are inviting current employees to join the suit.

“We know from our clients that they were being forced to work incredibly long hours,” Mince said, “and that creates a safety hazard.”

Jennifer A. Dlouhy contributed to this report.