Black Elk Energy oil rig fire: two feared dead, two more missing

Cross Posted from The Guardian

Two people are feared dead and two more are missing after a fire on an oil rig off the coast of Louisiana, the US coast guard said on Friday.

Four other workers were injured in the resulting fire on the Black Elk Energy rig in the Gulf of Mexico.

Lieutenant Commander Solomon Thompson, from coast guard sector New Orleans, said four people were unaccounted for following the fire. The coast guard was trying to confirm a report that two of the four were dead, Thompson said. Two others are described as missing.

There were “approximately 26 people” onboard the platform on Thursday night, Thompson said.

“But since the fire broke out they’ve only been able to account for 22 persons.

“We do know that 11 members were taken to local hospitals, and an additional nine members were taken from the one platform to a second platform.”

Of the four people unaccounted for, Thompson said:

“Our initial report was two are deceased. We’re still trying to confirm that there is in fact two deceased, two missing, and then 22 that we’ve been able to account for. We’re working really hard to get that number down.

“It was an initial report that two were deceased, so we’re operating off of two as deceased, two missing and then 22 unaccounted for.”

He added: “As you can imagine, there’s so many people helping so fast, it’s great, but it makes it difficult to track sometimes to track the exact number of who picked up who picked up who, what was their condition and checking them off the list.”

Thompson said two helicopters, two small boats and a fixed wing aircraft were involved in the search. There was still smoke rising from the platform at 1pm, he said, but no flames were visible.

The rig was not used for drilling, Thompson said, but was a production unit used to pump oil to the surface. It was not in production at the time of the fire.

“There was some construction on board and then the fire may have broken out as a cause of that construction.”

Thompson said although the rig was not in production, the coast guard had received a report that there was some kind of substance in the water nearby.

“We did have one report of a sheen which was a dark sheen, appearing to be oil, underneath the surface of the water, at a 200ft wide by 1.5 mile long sheen, but we haven’t confirmed exactly what that sheen is, whether or not it’s oil or some other substance. We’re assuming it’s oil but we haven’t confirmed that yet.”

A representative for Black Elk Energy, based in Houston, Texas, said that a team was en route to the site to investigate. “We’re still collecting information and as soon as we get all that we’re going to be releasing a press statement,” a spokeswoman for Black Elk said.

According to Black Elk’s website, the company is “an ethical and ecological-minded business”.

Reports of the fire and the deaths aboard the oil platform immediately recalled the April 2010 blowout of BP’s well in the Gulf of Mexico, which killed 11 men and unleashed one of America’s worst environmental disasters.

BP reached a plea settlement only on Wednesday, accepting guilt in the deaths of the men and agreeing to pay $4.5bn in penalties. It still faces up to $21bn in civil damages.

Friday’s fire still had a heavy human cost. But the Black Elk Facility – unlike BP’s Macondo well – was not a drilling rig, and it was not operating in deep water, which means the potential environmental consequences could be relatively slight. The coast guard said there was no evidence of pollution.

The well, located some 20 miles off of Grand Isle, Louisiana, is believed to be in relatively shallow waters, perhaps 500ft, initial television news reports said.

Both those factors mean that it will be far easier to cap the well if there is an oil leak.

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