The Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) intends to increase its focus on investigating chemically related offshore accidents. The new direction springs from a recent federal judicial decision affirming that CSB has this authority.
The board has investigated more than 70 accidents at refineries, chemical plants, and a broad mix of other facilities, but until recently none was at sea. That change occurred shortly after the April 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster. Several members of Congress asked CSB to investigate the accident, which killed 11 workers and created the largest U.S. oil spill ever.
When accepting the request, CSB’s then-chairman, John S. Bresland, noted the board’s expertise and mission is to find the root cause of chemical accidents. As such, he stressed that the board would limit its Deepwater investigation to the conditions leading to the accident. It would not consider, for instance, the disaster’s environmental impact.
After a rocky start, CSB overcame difficulties gaining access to witnesses and documents. However, rig owner and operator Transocean continued to refuse to release information to CSB, arguing the board lacked jurisdiction over offshore accidents.
Transocean refused to comply with five CSB subpoenas, with some going back to November 2010. Almost a year ago, the Department of Justice sought to enforce the subpoenas and turned to the U.S. District Court in Houston. On March 30, Judge Lee H. Rosenthal ruled that CSB does have jurisdiction in this case and Transocean must therefore comply with the subpoenas. Transocean has not decided if it will appeal Rosenthal’s decision, according to the firm.
Jurisdiction is key to the case. According to court documents, Transocean argued that the rig was a “vessel” and the accident was a “marine spill” and therefore investigative authority would go to the National Transportation Safety Board. CSB reasoned that the rig was stationary and attached to the seabed and was located outside U.S. navigable waters and outside NTSB jurisdiction. Additionally, CSB was not investigating the marine spill but rather the accident under its Clean Air Act authority. In her decision, Judge Rosenthal agreed.
“We now clearly have the authority—and we see it as an obligation—to look at offshore accidents,” says Daniel M. Horowitz, CSB managing director. The board, he says, will take its experience investigating onshore chemical plant and refinery accidents and apply it offshore.
Already, CSB is considering another offshore accident, this one at a Black Elk Energy oil production platform, 17 miles southeast of Grand Isle, La. On Nov. 16, 2012, during maintenance operations there, a fire occurred and three workers died.
Black Elk operates 854 wells on 155 platforms in the Gulf of Mexico, according to the company. In the past two years, the federal Bureau of Safety & Environmental Enforcement says the company received 315 noncompliance citations; 145 were severe enough to shut down a platform component and 12 forced the company to shut down an entire platform.
Black Elk has been helpful with CSB’s preliminary investigations, Horowitz says, but maintenance contractor Grand Isle Shipyard, whose workers were on the platform when the accident occurred, has not. Like Transocean, Grand Isle has refused to comply with CSB’s subpoenas, pointing to the Transocean jurisdictional fight, Horowitz says. Grand Isle officials refused to answer C&EN’s questions about the incident or CSB’s role in offshore investigations.
CSB is mum on the details of the Black Elk investigation. But the incident appears to closely align with CSB’s focus on workplace conditions and worker fatigue. Interviews shown on Louisiana television station WWL-TV show Grande Isle workers complaining of long hours and difficult working conditions. Many, like the three who died, are Philippine nationals who say they were brought to the U.S. by the shipyard company.
The board’s interest in taking such cases has caught the attention of many in the industry who don’t want CSB investigating offshore accidents, according to industry sources familiar with the case.
And unions representing chemical and refinery workers, who applaud the court decision, have their own concerns.
“CSB should have this authority,” says Michael J. Wright, United Steelworkers’ director of health, safety, and the environment. “I don’t think a company like Transocean should be able to resist cooperating in a federal investigation.
“But I am of two minds about expanding CSB’s reach into the offshore oil industry. First, I think it is a natural thing for them to do and it makes sense,” Wright says. “But they are so underresourced and so far behind in their other investigations that I hope this doesn’t put them further back.”
He notes that CSB’s budget has been basically flat for the past decade and it has 13 investigations in progress. Three are more than four years old.
Also likely to be delayed is the Deepwater investigation. CSB had set the release of a final report for this summer, but Horowitz now says with the expected new material, the board will “recalibrate” its schedule.