Fatal explosion came during maintenance work

WASHINGTON — The explosion at an offshore oil platform that killed one worker and injured three others Thursday happened during maintenance work at the site, according to new details disclosed Friday.

Although it is not clear precisely what triggered the blast at the platform 12 miles from the Louisiana coast, Houston-based Fieldwood Energy said contractors with Turnkey Cleaning Services were cleaning a heater treater at the time of the incident. Heater treaters are designed to separate oil from water and other materials.

Oil and gas was not flowing at the time, with production having been halted more than a week ago to allow for the maintenance work.

Fieldwood Energy stressed that the incident was “an isolated pressure event that occurred inside the heater treater and did not result in a fire on the platform.”

“There was no oil spill or pollution that resulted from this incident and it was contained immediately after it occurred with no damage to the environment, the platform or the platform’s wells,” the company added.

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The fatal explosion came nearly six months after federal drilling regulators warned that the facility had failed to maintain all equipment in a safe condition so as to ensure the protection of the lease and associated facilities.

The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement could not immediately say Friday what triggered that June 3 warning, though it could have been tied to a single piece of equipment among hundreds of devices at the site. Notably, the agency stopped short of ordering the facility or a component shut in when it issued that noncompliance warning in June or during the May 22 inspection that prompted the citation.

A team of engineers, inspectors and investigators with the safety bureau flew to the site Friday to probe what happened. Fieldwood also said it was working with the safety bureau, Coast Guard and Turnkey Cleaning Services to fully investigate the incident.

The identity of the deceased Turnkey worker has not been disclosed. According to Fieldwood, three other workers — including one with visible injuries and two with ringing ears — were treated at West Jefferson Hospital and released.

Unlike other recent offshore accidents, the injured workers were not Filipino, according to the Philippine Embassy.

The incident, coming roughly two months after a contractor was killed during maintenance work at an offshore natural gas pipeline, illustrates anew the dangers posed to the massive workforce that cleans and maintains oil and gas facilities in the Gulf of Mexico.

Read more: Dangers face immigrant contractor workforce in Gulf

Anne Rolfes, founding director of the environmental group Louisiana Bucket Brigade, said the industry has “an accident problem” that puts workers in harm’s way, including some that clean and maintain offshore oil facilities.

“That is not a glamorous job,” she said. “These people are at the lowest rung you can get in the industry and they are the ones who are bearing the risk.”

But Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser warned against a rush to regulate in response to the incident. He has spoken out against a Louisiana levee board’s lawsuit against 97 oil and gas companies that blames them for coastal wetland erosion.

“Any incident is horrible, and whenever we have one, we want to tighten the screws,” he said. But, he argued, “the oil industry does a great job in training their personnel.”

“It’s a relatively safe place to work, when you look at the amount of men and platforms and transportation back and forth — and you look at the minimal accidents they do have, even though they’re magnified when they happen,” he added.

Turnkey is a Louisiana-based industrial cleaning service company that focuses on facilities in the Gulf of Mexico. The company, which declined to say more about the incident Friday, notes on its website that it has had zero accidents or lost time incidents in the past five years.

Fieldwood’s facility is located in about 220 feet of water in the West Delta area of the Gulf of Mexico, in block 105. Houston-based Apache Corp., drilled three wells there in 2001, according to federal government records.

Federal officials have cited the facility for not complying with offshore oil regulations on 38 separate occasions dating back to 1997, though many — 18 — were during drilling activity in 2001. Four citations were issued in 2011, one in 2012 and one this June. All of them came before Fieldwood became the facility’s operator in July.

A portfolio company of the New York private equity firm Riverstone Holdings, Fieldwood officially became a qualified offshore operator a year earlier, in July 2013.

The company has been aggressively building up a Gulf of Mexico portfolio, with a $3.75 billion purchase of Apache Corp. assets on the continental shelf in 2013 and a $750 million deal for SandRidge Energy’s Gulf Coast and Gulf of Mexico unit earlier this year.

Other Fieldwood Energy operations in the Gulf have had minor injuries this year.

For instance, one injury was reported at a Fieldwood facility in July, when Hercules Offshore was the contractor on site. According to a safety bureau accident investigation report, a worker suffered a broken finger while using an electronic jack to maneuver a pallet of chemicals and a switch became stuck in the reverse position.

In a separate June incident documented by the safety bureau, a contractor at another Fieldwood Energy facility was injured when he missed a step on a stairway from the heliport and a 50-pound bag landed on his hip, breaking it.