The Black Elk Rig Fire Disaster

Tomorrow morning, one year ago, a blaze erupted on the Black Elk oil rig off the coast of Luisiana that would claim 3 men’s lives and injure several more. The lethal fire in the Gulf of Mexico was reportedly caused by workers welding into a pipe of West Delta Block 32 platform, which lead to a wet oil tank.

The death toll was initially 2 - as a prolonged search recovered one body the day after the incident, but was forced to be called off after failing to find a second body lost at sea - and totalled 3 as 49 year old Avelino Tajonera succumbed to his serious burn injuries in hospital shortly after his wife and 3 children arrived.

There were two dozen people aboard the rig when the fire occurred, with some being escorted via helicopter to hospitals or onshore treatment by emergency medical workers.

A sheet of oil approximately 1km long and 200m wide was reported on the Gulf surface, but officials believed this to have been caused by the residual oil on the platform as opposed to a substantial oil leak from the explosion.

Despite Black Elk citing on their website that they are “an ethical and ecological minded business”, soon after the catastrophe their practices soon came under fire from industry regulators and immediate changes were ordered of the company to improve safety at its offshore platforms.

James Watson, Director of the U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), said that they had failed to operate within federal regulations, and improvements had to be implemented.

Regrettably, disasters like this still occur, even after many rules and regulations being revised following the UK’s worst explosion that occurred in 1988. 

On 6th July of that year, 167 deaths were caused by the Piper Alpha disaster – the UK’s worst offshore tragedy in history. The platform was situation about 100 miles North-East of Aberdeen, and was obliterated by four massive explosions.

The tragedy influenced over 100 direct changes in safety practice and provoked immediate implementations. Piper Alpha shook the industry and, since, fatalities have fallen, but are sadly still occasionally occurring.

Notably the worst oil spill of all history is dated after the Piper Alpha, and is allocated to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster by BP, which claimed the lives of 11 men.  On April 20th in the Gulf of Mexico, Luisiana, the rig owned by Transocean encountered a sudden explosion, allowing the 126 crew just 5 minutes to escape.

The oil spill took BP months to get under control, and had significant impacts on the surrounding environment and wildlife. The second phase of the trial in New Orleans recently concluded, with NPR reporting that that the courts heard arguments about how BP responded to the Deepwater Horizon accident. BP's actions to stop the oil, as well as how much actually spewed into the Gulf, was also a subject of the second phase.

The final phase of the trial is due to take place next year, after which the judge will determine the penalties.

Billions of dollars in fines under the Clean Water Act are at stake for BP. Donald Vidrine and Robert Kaluza, the 2 senior managers aboard the Deepwater Horizon at the time of the incident, face charges of manslaughter and of negligence in supervising the pressure tests on the well.

Considering offshore work is amongst one of the most dangerous professions in any given industry, strict and safe working conditions should always be regulated and applied. Malcolm Webb, Chief Executive on Oil and Gas UK, stated that condolences and reflections should be carried out with integrated reviews on how far the industry has come, with the purpose of ‘sharing good practice and learning from each other.’
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