(CN) — A federal judge on Thursday levied a $4.2 million fine against a Houston-based oil driller for worker safety and environmental violations in connection with a platform explosion and fire that killed three workers.
Federal prosecutors had brought criminal charges against Black Elk Energy Offshore Operations in 2015 for a November 2012 explosion on its platform in the Gulf of Mexico.
The explosion was reportedly caused by repairs being done on one platform that was part of Black Elk’s three-platform complex called the West Delta 32 facility.
The repair work involved the installation of a valve on the platform’s automatic transfer unit and tying it into the sump line piping. The unit was the last point in the production process prior to the oil leaving West Delta 32 and entering the sales transmission pipeline.
On the morning of Nov. 16, 2012, a crew of subcontracted employees cut the sump pump line leading to the oil tank, causing liquid to spill from the piping.
“The construction superintendent observed the spill, but did not stop the work. He left the area and returned to the office located on another platform within the West Delta 32 facility,” the charging document stated.
The crew tried to weld on the cut pipe a few hours later and the oil vapors ignited, leading to a series of explosions in the three oil tanks on the platform.
The blasts spilled 480 barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico and “oil rained down on the lower deck of the platform” onto workers and sparked a fire, according to prosecutors.
The fire and explosions resulted in the deaths of Avelino Tajonera, Elroy Corporal and Jerome Malagapo, who were employees of Grand Isle Shipyards, a co-defendant in the criminal case.
Other workers who were also seriously burned and injured in the incident sued Black Elk in 2013.
Welding is a type of “hot work,” an activity that may produce a spark and that is hazardous on an oil production facility. Black Elk admitted that its employees and agents were negligent in their planning and performance of the hot work on the West Delta 32 platform on the day of the accident.
On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Jane Triche Milazzo sentenced Black Elk on eight felony violations of the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, or OCSLA, and one misdemeanor violation of the Clean Water Act.
In accordance with a plea agreement, the judge ordered Black Elk to pay a $4.2 million penalty.
Because of the company’s bankruptcy, the penalty will be a general unsecured claim against its bankruptcy estate entitled to a pro rata distribution from a trust with other allowed unsecured claims.
Under a plan of liquidation, the company’s assets were transferred into two trusts, and a trustee will administer distributions to creditors from the trusts.
Grand Isle Shipyards faces manslaughter charges, while co-defendants Curtis Dantin, Christopher Srubar, and Don Moss face criminal violations of the Clean Water Act in the Eastern District of Louisiana.
The OCSLA charges against Grand Isle Shipyards, Moss, Srubar, and Dantin, were dismissed by the district court and are pending in an interlocutory appeal by the government to the Fifth Circuit.