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4 November 2013

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Almost a year after Filipino workers were blamed for an offshore oil platform explosion and fire that left three of them dead, a United States federal agency today released the results of its investigation that held the American platform owner and contractors responsible for the incident.

The Philippine Embassy immediately welcomed the release by the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) of the Department of the Interior of its report that cleared Filipino workers and assigned blamed for the tragedy to Black Elk Energy and four other contractors.

“We welcome the release of the BSEE report that concluded that the deaths of three Filipino workers and the serious injuries sustained by three other Filipino workers were the result of a series of failures on the part of Black Elk Energy and its contractors to create a culture of safety in the work environment,” Ambassador Jose L. Cuisia, Jr. said in a statement.

In its report, a copy of which was presented to Ambassador Cuisia by BSEE Director Brian M. Salerno, the BSEE said the accident happened because Black Elk Energy failed to establish an effective culture of safety and communicate risks and precautions to its contractors who were, in turn, blamed for failing to follow proper safety precautions.

“We are greatly relieved to learn from the official BSEE investigation report that the Filipino workers were not responsible for the tragedy, contrary to earlier assertions made by Black Elk Energy President John Hoffman who had wrongfully attributed the accident to our workers,” Ambassador Cuisia said.

Media reports attributed to Hoffman immediately after the incident suggested that the Filipino workers triggered the explosion and fire because of their supposed incompetence and lack of English language skills. The Embassy demanded and later obtained an apology from Hoffman.

“It had always been our position that our workers could not have been responsible for the accident and that they were actually the victims of a terrible accident that could easily have been prevented,” the Ambassador said, adding that the BSEE findings were consistent with statements given to the Embassy by the surviving workers.

The BSEE report said the explosion was triggered by the welding work the Filipino workers were ordered to perform on a pipeline connected to what they were made to believe were empty storage tanks that apparently still contained dangerous vapors. The BSEE also cited other safety lapses by the contractors among the causes or contributing causes to the accident.

In response to a query from the Embassy, the BSEE said the supposed language gaps and lack of skills, training or experience of the Filipino workers were not identified as among the causes of the explosion and fire.

“The Filipino workers who were on board the ill-fated platform all had extensive experience in offshore oil platforms in the Philippines, the Middle East, Europe and other parts of the world,” Ambassador Cuisia said. “And like majority of Filipinos, they all speak and understand English.”

While the release of the findings took longer than expected, Ambassador Cuisia commended the BSEE for conducting an impartial and thorough investigation into the incident that claimed the lives of Ellroy Corporal, Jerome Malagapo and Avelino Tajonera and seriously injured Antonio Tamayo, Reynaldo Dominguez and Wilberto Ilagan.

In his statement, Director Salermo said the death and serious injuries of the workers on the Black Elk facility serve as a reminder of the grave consequences that can arise from offshore operations.

“These deaths were caused by a number of decisions, actions and failures by Black Elk and contractors retained by Black Elk while conducting construction operations,” Director Salermo said. “These failures reflect a disregard for the safety of workers on the platform and are the antithesis of the type of safety culture that should guide decision-making in all offshore oil and gas operations.”

Director Salermo said the accident was the result of specific safety failures that include: “no hazard identification; conducting ‘hot work’ without taking required safety precautions; failure to isolate hydrocarbons inside an oil tank; ineffective communication among contractors; and a climate of fear in which workers feared retaliation if they raised safety concerns.”

In its report, the BSEE said that as the lessee and designated operator, Black Elk was responsible for conducting safe construction operations at the offshore complex in compliance with all applicable BSEE regulations. It added that each contractor was also responsible for conducting safe operations in compliance with all applicable regulations.

“Black Elk as the operator failed to inform the contractors of any known hazards at the facility they were working on, including but not limited to hazardous or flammable chemicals in accordance with the Black Elk safety and environment management system,” the report said. ###