During the week of November 16th, I scouted out the Clean Gulf Conference and Exposition in New Orleans where hundreds of vendors touted their products that they claim can clean up the Gulf after a toxic release such as a blown-out oil well. Having spent way too much time over the last two and a half years documenting the ongoing BP disaster impacts on our beloved Gulf coast, I met many of these vendors with great skepticism. One glaring absence at this event was the lack of a community perspective or means for involvement in the event of another disaster. More on that later…
As if purposefully timed to remind the attendees at that conference of theirs and their products self-importance, on Friday, November 16, 2012, an oil platform explosion and subsequent fire were reported on a rig located in the Gulf of Mexico off the Louisiana coast that was operated by Black Elk Energy Co. Fortunately, the explosion occurred while routine maintenance was being performed on the rig and the wells had been plugged before the explosion occurred, thereby averting what could have been a much greater environmental disaster. There were 22 people on board the rig at the time this explosion occurred, which left three individuals dead and several more injured. My heart goes out to the injured, dead and their families.
One might rationalize this incident with the view that we know accidents happen and maybe this was just an unfortunate, isolated incident. But, the reality is this: Black Elk's operations were cited 315 times in the past two years for rules violations and risky procedures. Despite all of these citations, it wasn’t until Nov. 21 that BOEME seemed willing to crack down. In a letter that day, BOEME gave the company until Dec. 15 to develop a plan for boosting the safety aboard its 98 platforms in the Gulf. Seems like a little late for that, eh? Finally, it seems the bureau has woken up and found that Black Elk "showed a disregard for the safety of personnel" after the platform accident. Why did it take the loss of life for safety to become a priority?
There have been 141 injuries and 71 fires and explosions aboard Gulf facilities this year. Despite promises of reform and tougher regulation, drilling in the Gulf remains an industry-dominated fraternity, as was clearly evident at the Clean Gulf conference that I attended.
Community Oversight Needed
Given the ongoing BP disaster, the Black Elk, LLC explosion, the ever-present unaccountable leaks from the Ocean Saratoga and other rusting rigs and pipes, the legacy of Oil and Gas destruction upon the Mississippi River Delta, and our future made unlikelier by a warming, rising sea, People of the Gulf demand an independent voice to hold the oil industry accountable. What would such a body look like, what would it do, how would it be funded? Here is an example currently succeeding in Alaska:
Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council
The Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council is an independent, non-profit organization, whose purpose is to promote environmentally safe operations of the oil and gas industry, help prevent future spills, and monitor pollution. Under The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA90), two regional citizen advisory councils were created - one for the Prince William Sound area and one for Cook Inlet. Congress envisioned the councils as a mechanism to foster long-term partnerships between industry, government, and the coastal communities of Alaska.
RCACs have no legal authority or vote in the decision-making process. Rather, the council comments on and participates in monitoring and assessment of environmental, social, and economic consequences of oil-transportation activities, including comments on the design of measures to mitigate the impacts of oil spills and other environmental effects of oil and gas operations.OPA 90 requires operators in the region to provide annual funding for these RCACs.
Some major RCAC in Alaska accomplishments have included:
• Addressing public questions and concerns about spill risks and spill prevention measures. • Supporting the creation of response strategies to protect vulnerable coastal areas from spills. • Advising the U.S. Congress on double-hull requirements for oil tankers. • Funding research that resulted in vapor controls on tankers to limit the release of dangerous fumes. • Funding buoys that collect data for modeling the path of spilled oil. • Helping to establish a tanker escort system with tug boats to monitor conditions and assist tankers.
As events over the past few years in the Gulf of Mexico have demonstrated, working in the Gulf Oil and Gas industry is extremely dangerous. Workers assume that the companies that employ them are dedicated to their safety, but unfortunately, that is often not the case. When companies fail to properly maintain offshore platforms and infrastructure or necessary safety equipment, unsuspecting workers are often the ones to pay the human price while the environmental consequences can be extremely severe.
As a reminder of what can and will happen in the event of the next blow-out in the Gulf, please take a look at the slideshow below. The aerial shots are by our Deputy Director on a Southwings flight on April 25th, 2010 at the "source" of the BP disaster. We all know what a lack of preparedness will lead to and, quite frankly, despite claims by authorities and industry that we are better prepared today, I'm not convinced. We can and must do better, and an RCAC is a step in the right direction.
Don’t Just Blame the Moratorium for Loss of Louisiana Jobs:
As if the above issues weren’t bad enough, there’s more. The injured workers in Black Elk’s oil platform fire in the Gulf of Mexico were mostly Filipino guest laborers. The workers have said they were lured to Louisiana with the promise of a fat paycheck. But, according to a lawsuit filed well before the November 16th explosion, they found themselves living in substandard conditions making only modest wages. The lawsuit claims the conduct of the hiring company, Grand Isle Shipyard, “rises to the level” of human trafficking, involuntary servitude and forced-labor offenses. “From the minute plaintiffs and other Filipino workers set foot in Louisiana, they were essentially imprisoned,” the attorneys wrote in one filing. Among the other claims: Filipino workers were monitored so they would not escape, forced to abide by a strict curfew, and prohibited from obtaining driver’s licenses or even riding in a car with an American worker. The suit goes on to list even more specific complaints, which you can find by clicking here.
Black Elk, LLC paints a rosy picture on its website about how it cares for its workers, community and environment. For instance, the company claims:
"Black Elk Energy is passionately committed to being ecologically and environmentally responsible… Our endeavors are multi-faceted and involve high-level engineering, smart economics, and have strict internal regulations to ensure the health and safety of our team and our environment… We are committed to providing a safe, healthy workplace for our employees and contractors. This means being in full compliance with all health, safety, and environmental (HSE) regulations, laws and standards. To guarantee our commitment, Black Elk Energy carefully selects and trains our employees and provides continuing education to ensure competency… We will not put the safety and well-being of workers at risk, nor will we make decisions that create worker risk …We will always comply with the law and freely report any violations…We will strive to produce at a low cost but will not save money at the expense of the above stated priorities."
Blah, blah, blah. We’ve heard it all before from just about every company drilling in the Gulf. The truth is that we cannot rely on these companies or the Federal government to ensure the safety of workers and the environment. It is high time that a Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council is created to really protect our people and the Gulf’s bountiful natural resources from Black Elk, LLC and the like.
**Photo of explosion courtesy of USCG.
Jonathan Henderson is the Coastal Resiliency Organizer for GRN.