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Chemical Safety Board Subpoenas Black Elk Energy re: the West Delta 32 Explosion and Fire

Black Elk Energy’s West Delta 32 Platform. US Coast Guard photo.

We mourn the loss of life and pray for the missing worker. We wish the injured a speedy recovery.

I am dismayed by a new development:

U.S. board issues subpoena on offshore platform blast

(Reuters) – A U.S. industrial accident investigative board served Black Elk Energy with a subpoena on Monday, seeking information about last week’s offshore Gulf of Mexico oil platform explosion that left one worker dead and another missing.

Spokeswoman Hillary Cohen said the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, which investigates chemical spills, refinery explosions and other industrial accidents, will decide whether to launch a probe into Friday’s blast once Houston-based Black Elk responds to the subpoena.

The company has until November 30 to respond, Cohen said. The CSB has authority to subpoena witnesses, but not to issue fines or citations.

The U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), which regulates offshore oil and gas drilling and production, is investigating the blast.

BSEE said on Monday that its investigative team met Black Elk personnel at the platform to go over the agency’s plan to collect evidence, interview witnesses and review safety procedures.

Once that information is analyzed, the agency can decide what enforcement plans are appropriate, BSEE Director James Watson said.

The Chemical Safety Board also tried to stick its nose into the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

As noted in the passage above, the CSB cannot issue fines or citations. The BSEE can and does. The subject of this investigation is in the BSEE’s wheelhouse: it mandates the safety and environmental management systems which are supposed to prevent such an accident. BSEE is the appropriate agency to conduct an investigation. The CSB can only distract Black Elk and BSEE whose job it is to get to the bottom of what happened.

Generally, the federal agencies respect boundaries in order to mitigate conflicting priorities and to prevent duplication of effort. BSEE generally is the lead agency on offshore platforms and drilling rigs. They serve as the eyes and ears for Coast Guard, EPA and other agencies. On vessels, the Coast Guard takes the lead. Helicopters are the FAA’s bailiwick.

Cohen said information the CSB is seeking includes use of combustible natural gas detectors, Black Elk’s safety and environmental management systems and policies and prior safety violations or citations.

By all reports, a worker on WD 32 cut into a flowline using a cutting torch. The line contained a small amount of oil, which spilled, and presumably some natural gas, which ignited. At some point there was a deviation from procedure. A gas detector would not have warned of the danger.

Neither Black Elk’s platform nor the Deepwater Horizon was a refinery or a chemical processing facility. The CSB should stick to its knitting and stay out of the way of BSEE’s investigation.

Cross-posted at my energy blog.

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