Feds launch probe into death of Gulf worker

WASHINGTON — Federal investigators said Thursday they will launch a probe to determine what caused the death of an oil platform worker, after he fell into the Gulf of Mexico on Sunday evening.

The welder, Peter Jorge E. Voces, was a Filipino member of a derrick barge crew that was dismantling a platform operated by Energy Resource Technology about 75 miles southeast of Lake Charles, when the accident occurred.

It is the second death reported at an offshore ERT facility in roughly two years. And it is another offshore fatality involving a Filipino worker, following a November 2012 explosion at a Black Elk Energy platform in the Gulf of Mexico that killed three people from the Philippines.

Voces’ body was ultimately found near the platform — which was no longer serving active wells — following a Coast Guard search.

The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement said its inquiry into the incident would be led by a panel of bureau inspectors, investigators and engineers, as well as a Coast Guard representative.

Safety Bureau Director Brian Salerno said the panel “will conduct a thorough investigation into this tragic incident.”

“We are committed to a complete investigation to identify the cause of the incident and to identify approaches to enhance the safety of future operations,” Salerno added in a statement.

ERT is a newly acquired subsidiary of the private Houston-based oil and gas company Talos Energy.

In a statement, the company pledged to fully cooperate with the safety bureau’s investigation. “The safety of people is always our highest priority, and we will be focused on the safety of our employees and our contractors throughout the investigation,” the firm said.

The death occurred during work to decommission an inactive platform, part of Talos’ ongoing work to remove idle structures in its Gulf portfolio. The facility was inactive; all wells associated with it had been plugged and abandoned, with the most recent sealed off last year.

The accident occurred around 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, during salvage operations conducted by an ERT contractor, Offshore Specialty Fabricators LLC. Voces was believed to be working on a 80-foot-by-16-foot 300-barrel tank when it fell off the platform, down scores of feet to the sea.

Unlike the explosion at Black Elk’s platform last year, this incident did not involve oil and gas at the site. An ERT spokesman said the storage tanks had all been cleared of hydrocarbons before decommissioning work began.

In July, ERT spent days working to stop a briny mix of gas, light condensate and salt water flowing from a 40-year-old well which was in the process of being permanently plugged and abandoned.

There have been incidents at other ERT facilities in the Gulf, including a fatal crane accident at an offshore production facility operated by the company in August 2011.

In that incident, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement faulted ERT for failing to maintain equipment in a safe condition; among the problems was severely corroded, four-year-old boom hoist wire rope. Critical corrosion and lubrication issues had gone undetected during a contractor’s annual inspection six months before the incident, and workers on the site failed to conduct an inspection before the crane was used, the safety bureau said.

It was ordered to shut down facilities five times in 2012, and on 25 occasions, inspectors told the company to shut in specific activities or equipment that posed a risk. In March 2010, it was fined $105,000 after a fire on a platform; federal investigators said the company was aware of vibration issues that preceded the incident but did not act “in a timely manner” to address them.