Oil platform explodes in Gulf of Mexico; 11 injured, 2

By Miguel Llanos and Elizabeth Chuck, NBC News

Two workers were missing and 11 were airlifted to hospitals Friday after an explosion and fire aboard a Gulf of Mexico oil rig that was apparently triggered by workers using a torch to cut into a pipe, the U.S. Coast Guard said.

Earlier reports from local officials said two workers had died, but the Coast Guard could not confirm that.

Rescue crews searched the Gulf some 17 miles southeast of Grand Isle, La., for the missing workers. At least four of the injured are in critical condition, according to Jefferson Parish Emergency Management.

The fire was later extinguished, Coast Guard Capt. Ed Cubanski told reporters, and the platform appears to be structurally sound. Twenty-two people had been aboard the rig at the time of the accident.

The platform was not actively producing oil and a sheen spotted in the water was probably from an estimated 28 

gallons of oil that could have spilled when a pipe ruptured, Cubanski said.

It does not appear the incident could lead to a major environmental disaster, added Coast Guard Capt. Peter Gautier.

He said initial reports suggested that the explosion occurred when maintenance workers using a torch cut into a pipe with oil inside.

The platform is a shallow-water production platform, unlike BP's Macondo well that blew out in 2010 in mile-deep water. The Macondo explosion killed 11 workers and caused the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history.

The owner of the platform is Houston-based Black Elk Energy. On its website, the company stated that this month it was starting to drill the first of 23 new wells in the Gulf of Mexico.

Last Sunday, The Houston Chronicle named Black Elk Energy one of the top small businesses to work for in Houston based on employee surveys.

In August, the oil and gas company was named one of the fastest-growing privately held companies by Inc. Magazine.

The explosion came a day after BP settled criminal charges in the Macondo disaster by agreeing to pay $4.5 billion in penalties. It still faces up to $20 billion in civil fines.

Black Elk Energy was investigated last August by the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Regulation and Enforcement for an incident in which two employees were dropped 60 feet into Gulf of Mexico waters due to a crane malfunction, Reuters reported. No injuries were reported.

Black Elk also paid a $300,000 civil fine in September, related to a site inspection in 2011 of one of its facilities that revealed it was not complying with regulations.

Federal data also shows a small fire occurred at a Black Elk platform in February of 2011 in the Gulf of Mexico, but was quickly contained.

The company's chief executive, John Hoffman, formerly worked for BP Amoco, according to a report earlier this year in the Houston Business Journal. Hoffman founded Black Elk in 2007, the report said.

Friday's incident could reignite a national debate over safety standards for offshore drilling. After the Horizon spill, the government overhauled offshore drilling regulations and imposed a ban on drilling that lasted for several months.

"BP and the government may have settled criminal matters yesterday, but today's incident shows that increasing safety of offshore drilling and for hard-working men and women is still not a settled matter," Rep. Ed Markey, the ranking Democrat on the House National Resources Committee, said in a statement.


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