It seems that, for the Gulf Coast, which has already endured the tragic BP oil spill, the hits just keep on coming. A November 16 oil platform explosion and fire left 11 workers injured, one confirmed dead, and one still missing. It also left oil sheen on the already-polluted Louisiana water.
The platform, located 20 miles southeast of Grand Isle, La., was owned by Black Elk Energy, a Houston-based oil and gas drilling company. The accident was attributed to a mishap with a welding torch being used to cut an oil line. Aside from the oil sheen near the platform, there were no reports of a major leak.
The workers, all from the Philippines, were working for oil contractor Grand Isle Shipyard, Inc. - a company that was fined and cited for violations by the federal Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration in 2008. That was due to a 2007 incident in which two employees died after inhaling poisonous hydrogen sulfide. They were exposed to the gas after their respirators were disconnected. Grand Isle was fined $7,000 for that accident.
Grand Isle is also facing a separate lawsuit by a group of former workers who said they were confined to cramped living quarters and forced to work long hours for little pay. Grand Isle reportedly didn't pay them properly for overtime, and may have violated other fair-labor standards.
This latest incident in the Gulf is an unpleasant reminder that oil companies show no compassion for workers, or for the environment. Notably, this disaster occurred just days after the U.S. Department of Justice called for BP to pay up $4.5 billion in fines for the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, with other penalties against the oil giant still pending. Though Black Elk Energy is a smaller company, it is clearly no less negligent than its larger counterparts, proving once more that Big Oil will cause damage to people and ecosystems time and again.
Frances Beinecke, president of nonprofit environmental group National Resources Defense Council, remarked, "Though the BP criminal case is settled, today's hazard makes clear that the hazards of oil and gas drilling are not in America's rear view. It is a sad reminder that offshore drilling is an inherently dangerous business. Workers and communities are put in harm's way every day, and will continue to be as long as we prioritize this risky energy development. Our leaders must keep that squarely in mind when considering where and how to allow further drilling along our coasts."
Perhaps most disturbing of all to Louisianans is the fact that what Black Elk has done is simply pile another disaster on top of the aftermath of BP's spill, which could continue to have negative effects on health and the environment for years to come.
David Camardelle, mayor of the town of Grand Isle, lamented the lack of environmental progress, noting, "We can put robots on Mars, but we can't tell how much BP oil is still out in the Gulf. Something's wrong with that."
Kindra Arnesen, wife of a fisherman in Buras, La., felt that there were still plenty of accidents-waiting-to-happen in the Gulf, and questioned what - if anything - Big Oil has learned after the BP disaster. "This may have been a fluke accident," she said, "but it makes me wonder - what really has changed in the oil industry since the BP explosion? It just seems like we should be doing something better."
Photo: Tar balls found near Grand Isle, La., believed to be the remnants of the 2010 BP spill. Mac MacKenzie/Ecowatch.org