Black Elk-funded investigation blames contractors for fatal platform explosion

The fatal explosion of a Gulf of Mexico production platform last November was triggered by contractors conducting maintenance work at the site, according to an investigation commissioned by the Houston-based company that owned the facility.

Federal investigators are still probing what caused the explosion and fire at Black Elk Energy’s West Delta 32 production platform, which killed three people and injured two others. But conclusions from the initial third-party investigation funded by Black Elk and conducted by ABSG Consulting dovetail with earlier speculation that contractors were welding a pipe that hadn’t been cleared of flammable gas, igniting explosions in connected oil tanks.

The ABSG report effectively deflects blame from Black Elk Energy to a web of contractors working on the ill-fated facility, including Phillipines-based DNR Offshore and Crewing Services, Scotland’s Wood Group PSN and Galliano, La.-based Grand Isle Shipyard.

According to the Black Elk-funded investigation, the fire can be traced back to a pipe welding operation conducted by DNR Offshore and Crewing Services, which had been hired by Grand Isle Shipyard to do the work. Around 9 a.m. on Nov. 16, 2012, the DNR workers started welding a flange on open piping that led to a wet oil tank.

But ABSG Consulting said the piping was not isolated and cleared of flammable vapors before the contractors began the work. And once workers started welding, sparks ignited flammable vapors in the pipe, triggering the explosion in the wet oil tank and two connected dry tanks.

Previous problems: Houston’s Black Elk Energy had history of violations before fatal fire

Black Elk said the actions violated the company’s safety practices, which require supervisors to issue permits for any so-called “hot work” activities that involve burning, welding or other operations capable of starting fires. The American Petroleum Institute also has issued a standard urging companies to test for flammable gas and take other precautions whenever conducting hot work.

Contractors from Wood Group PSN who oversaw day-to-day activities on the platform issued a hot work permit the morning of the explosion, but according to the investigation, it was effectively a duplicate of the previous day’s authorization, without a fresh walk through and assessment of the areas it covered.

Workers also apparently missed several warning signs during the morning’s maintenance work. According to the ABSG report, just before beginning welding on the flange, one worker smelled a strong gas odor but DNR personnel “could not determine the source of the gas, and they did not stop work.” Earlier that same morning, when a a pneumatic saw sliced through a sump discharge pipe leading to the wet oil tank and a clear liquid drained out of the line, workers believed it was water and continued activities without assessing the incident.

Black Elk CEO John Hoffman said its contract with Grand Isle Shipyard precluded it from using subcontractors. He also faulted the company for improperly overseeing its workforce on the facility.

“A serious issue in this case was Grand Isle’s apparent failure to provide proper safety training and appropriate supervision,” Hoffman said in a statement.

Officials from Grand Isle Shipyard did not respond to a request for comment. But previously, Grand Isle Shipyard CEO Mark Pregeant rejected Hoffman’s theory that sparks from workers cutting a water line ignited flammable vapors in the pipe and triggered the explosion in connected oil tanks.

A 2011 lawsuit accuses Grand Isle of fraudulently hiring workers from the Phillipines and forcing them to work under deplorable conditions. Grand Isle has rejected the claims.

Wood Group said in a statement that safety is its highest priority. “We are committed to preventing injuries to our people and everyone we work with,” the company said. “We review our procedures regularly and update them when appropriate as part of our continuous improvement program and we provide our people with the training, knowledge and tools they need to work safely and prevent accidents.:

ABSG Consulting conducted its probe with an 11-person investigative team that reviewed some 650 documents gathered from the damaged facility, including photographs, schematics, maintenance records, permits and correspondence. The investigators said most contractors performing work at the site refused to allow their employees to be interviewed, given ongoing or threatened litigation.

The resulting 401-page report was shared with the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, which is completing its own probe of the incident. A spokesman for the safety bureau said the agency had received the report and was reviewing it.

“The investigation of the incident is ongoing, and a full report will be published when the investigation has been completed,” the spokesman said.

The safety bureau’s findings could form the basis of civil penalties against any of the companies working at the West Delta 32 platform. The agency has recently begun issuing violation notices and proposed penalties to contractors working offshore, though federal laws and regulations still put the onus for compliance on offshore operators.

Contractor oversight has emerged as a major factor other offshore incidents, including the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster that killed 11 workers and led to the nation’s worst oil spill.

Black Elk Energy has said it is still dealing with financial fallout from the fatal explosion.

In the wake of the accident, the safety bureau ordered Black Elk to submit a performance improvement plan and analyze more than 300 documented mistakes and violations offshore.

Regulators have not given the company approval to resume production at the damaged West Delta 32 platform, but Black Elk said it has completed repairs at the site.