Black Elk Energy and Grand Isle Shipyards to Face Criminal Manslaughter Charges for 2012 Explosion

Two companies were indicted in connection with a 2012 explosion and fire that claimed the lives of three workers and injured several more. Black Elk Energy Offshore Operations and Grand Isle Shipyards face involuntary manslaughter charges for the deaths of Avelino Tajonera, Ellroy Corporal and Jerome Malagapo, who were killed in these industrial explosions. Along with these two energy firms, contractor Wood Group PSN Inc. and three supervisors employed by the company were also charged with violating safety practices mandated by the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act and the Clean Water Act. A federal report found that these companies and individuals had engaged in rushing the work performed by their employees and had failed to follow proper safety procedures in the workplace. The Black Elk Platform Explosion On November 16, 2012, workers were welding a sump pump pipe on the Black Elk Energy platform located just 17 miles from the Louisiana shore. No fire watch was on duty, and no gas detection equipment was deployed during this operation, which occurred in the early morning hours on the jobsite. The area in which the welding was performed also contained storage tanks that still contained flammable liquid; in fact, the pipe being welded was attached to one of these tanks. No inspection was performed to determine if the worksite was safe. Investigators believe that the open flame used in welding ignited the flammable materials inside the pipe and nearby tanks. Corporal and Malagapo were pronounced dead on the scene; Tajonera spent a week in the hospital before succumbing to his injuries. Systematic Failure to Protect Worker Safety Despite the existence of safety plans for the oil platform, Black Elk and Grand Isle failed to follow the established procedures and showed an alarming lack of care for their workers. The federal investigation indicated that the hot-work permits required to perform the welding activities were simply copied from those filled out for previous days. Investigators also found that workers were unwilling to speak up about safety violations out of fears that they might lose their jobs. These issues served as major contributing factors for the fatal accident. A History of Neglect The November 2012 explosion was not the first time that Black Elk had run afoul of federal investigators. According to the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), the energy company had been cited for 315 incidents of non-compliance and had been shut down by federal regulators 145 times due to unsafe working conditions during the two-year period between 2010 and 2012. Faulty equipment, failure to test valves and disregard for the safety of personnel were the primary problems cited by BSEE investigators. Black Elk Energy and its contractors are also facing a wrongful death lawsuit from the family of Tajonera and other civil suits related to this incident. Black Elk is currently in Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings based on actions by its creditors. Legal Action an Effective Tool for Change Because many energy companies are motivated primarily by profits, shutdowns, fines and lawsuits can be effective ways to hit these businesses where they can be hurt. After the 2005 Texas City industrial explosion at BP’s refinery, for instance, the corporation spent billions of dollars as part of legal settlements with survivors and family members of the 15 workers killed and the more than 170 people injured in the accident. By consulting with a qualified Texas City refinery explosion attorney, these individuals were able to hold BP accountable for its actions on a financial level and to achieve fair settlements for their injuries. Working with a lawyer who specializes in industrial and petrochemical plant accidents can provide added help in holding large energy corporations accountable for their negligence in protecting their employees. By ensuring that these companies pay the price for their actions, workers and their families can do their part to create a safer environment for all those employed in the Texas oil industry.