Feds cite Houston firm, contractors in fatal Gulf blast

HOUSTON – The federal government slapped Houston-based Black Elk Energy and three contractors with 41 citations Wednesday, alleging they failed to ensure safe welding on a Gulf of Mexico production platform where an explosion killed three workers last year.

The agency that led a federal investigation into the explosion said the citations, called “incidents of non-compliance,” could lead to civil penalties for Black Elk and contractors  Wood Group PSN of Aberdeen, Scotland; Compass Engineering & Consultants of Lafayette, La.; and Grand Isle Shipyard of Galliano, La.

A spokeswoman for Black Elk was not available for comment Wednesday. The company and its contractors can appeal the charges within 60 days.

The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement said in its list of citations that the contractors on the platform did not render flammable hydrocarbons in the piping and nearby tanks inert before welders began working and did not follow an approved welding plan.

“The welding operation was conducted in an area not equipped with a properly functioning gas detector,” the safety bureau said.

Feds: Safety culture ‘poor, at best’ before fatal Black Elk platform blast

The agency detailed findings of its probe into the incident earlier this month, reporting that hydrocarbon vapors set off an explosion around 9 a.m. on Nov. 16, 2012 on Black Elk’s Delta 32 platform about 20 miles off Grand Isle, La.

Three oil tanks exploded on the platform and sent oil into the Gulf.

Among the incidents of non-compliance, the safety agency said, were failure to prevent the discharge of oil and failure to protect personnel from fire hazards. The safety bureau also cited the contractors for failing to produce permits to conduct hot work, which includes welding.

Several problems on the platform “are the antithesis of the type of safety culture that should guide decision-making in all offshore oil and gas operations,” said Brian Salerno, Bureau of  Safety and Environmental Enforcement director, in a statement accompanying the Nov. 4 report.

Black Elk Energy and most of its contractors did not respond to requests for comment when that report came out. Wood Group said only that it would review the report and that safety was its top priority.