HOUSTON–An oil and gas platform exploded and caught fire off the coast of Louisiana on Friday, injuring 11, leaving two missing and resulting in a two-by-a-quarter mile oil sheen around the site, the U.S. Coast Guard said.
Coast Guard spokesman Jonathan Lally said it is possible the two missing people went overboard, and several commercial vessels are participating in the search. Mr. Lally said there are “no confirmed fatalities,” and the fire on the platform was extinguished.
The platform is located in shallow water 25 miles off Grand Isle, La., in the offshore West Delta 32 block in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico. It is owned by Black Elk Energy, an independent Houston-based oil and gas company. The company didn’t reply to requests for comment, but posted a statement on its Website that said that “our thoughts and prayers are with those who are impacted,” and that company personnel were on the scene and en route. “We will release a statement this afternoon when we have more details,” the company said.
The blast comes one day after BP PLC (BP) agreed to plead guilty to 14 criminal charges and to pay fines and penalties of $4.5 billion to federal authorities over the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion, which killed 11 and unleashed the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history, some 75 miles southeast of the Black Elk platform.
The incidents are very different–the Black Elk platform is a decades-old operation in a few feet of water, whereas the Deepwater Horizon rig was a state-of-the-art vessel drilling a new, high-pressure reservoir at thousands of feet of depth. But the proximity of the explosion to Grand Isle, an area severely affected by oil washing ashore from the BP spill, raised the specter of that incident.
Nevertheless, Louisiana Department of Natural Resources spokeswoman Phyllis Darensbourg said a big spill wasn’t expected, as the Black Elk platform wasn’t producing oil or gas. “There is not believed to be any chance of major lasting environmental damage,” Ms. Darensbourg said.
The Coast Guard’s Mr. Lally said four people injured in the explosion were flown to the West Jefferson Parish Medical Center in Marrero, La. Taslin Alfonzo, a medical center spokeswoman, said the four patients were in critical condition; two are being moved to the Baton Rouge General Burn Center while the other two will be moved there in four to six hours. The patients suffered extensive second- and third-degree burns, Ms. Alfonzo said.
Another Coast Guard spokesman, Carlos Vega, said another two people were flown to the Terrebonne General Medical Center, and two were flown to the Lady of the Sea General Hospital, in Cut Off, La. A spokesman for the Terrebonne hospital said that the facility has received two patients “and they are in good condition.” The Lady of the Sea General Hospital didn’t respond to calls for comment.
Three people were also flown to Grand Isle to be picked up by an ambulance, Mr. Vega said, adding that there was an oil sheen around the platform.
A Coast Guard spokesman said that the agency has now confirmed that there were 22 people on board. Nine of the crew were evacuated to other rigs and platforms in the area.
Black Elk Energy Offshore Operations was involved in two of incidents reported in 2010, when the last batch of detailed statistics was released, according to government data.
Black Elk Energy Chief Executive John Hoffman told Houston TV station KPRC that the explosion was set off when sparks from a torch the workers were using to cut a line on the platform hit a storage tank, which then exploded. The workers were doing construction work, he said.
Five workers remain in hospitals, while two have been released, Mr. Hoffman told the station. No fatalities have been confirmed, he said.
About 16 barrels of oil leaked from the nonproducing platform into the water, Mr. Hoffman said. Black Elk was sending response boats to the scene, he added.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, which oversees the safety of offshore operations in federal waters, said inspectors from the agency are en route to the platform.
Offshore platform fires happen often, although most of them cause only minor damage. More than 100 fires or explosions were reported to the government each year between 2007 and 2011, according to the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement. Of those, only a handful caused damage worth more than $25,000.
So far this year, 74 incidents have been reported, most of them in the Gulf of Mexico.
BSEE investigated Black Elk last year for a small fire on one of its offshore production rigs. In February 2011, an improperly enclosed rechargeable battery started a fire on a Black Elk platform, according to an accident report archived by the BSEE. The safety agency recommended that Black Elk review how it stores batteries on platforms to minimize the chances of internal shorts and possible fires.
Black Elk was also investigated for a crane accident in August 2012, when an improperly repaired winch let loose.
Black Elk was the company that BSEE chose to carry out its first-ever virtual safety audit in November 2011. The federal agency carried out an Internet-based audit of Black Elk’s Safety and Environmental Management Systems, which are meant to enhance the safety of offshore operations by minimizing human error and reducing the frequency of accidents.
Though they were strengthened in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon accident, those safety rules had been in the works for years to make the industry more proactive in fostering a safety culture. There is no information on the results of the BSEE virtual audit of Black Elk.
Mr. Hoffman, the company’s CEO, began his career with Amoco, which had been acquired by BP by the time he left in 1999. He founded Black Elk in 2007 and a year later it landed its first offshore opportunity.
Last month, Black Elk announced plans to ramp up operations in Gulf of Mexico by starting drilling on 23 new wells.
-By Ben Lefebvre, Alison Sider and Keith Johnson. (c) 2012 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.