Body found near oil platform

Authorities say that divers hired by the owner of an oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico that caught fire on Friday have recovered a body near the site.

Coast Guard spokesman Carlos Vega said the unidentified person was found Saturday evening by divers hired by Houston-based Black Elk Energy who were inspecting the platform. Vega said the Coast Guard was turning over the remains to local authorities.

The news came shortly after the Coast Guard suspended a 32-hour-long search for two workers missing after the fire erupted. The search covered a 1,400-square-foot area. Vega said the Guard could resume the search if there is credible evidence that one of the workers survived.

Helicopters had been searching for the missing workers from the air, while a cutter searched the sea.

The blaze erupted Friday as workers were using a torch to cut an oil line on a platform owned by Houston-based Black Elk Energy about 20 miles southeast of Grand Isle.

Four workers were severely burned, though Black Elk Energy spokeswoman Leslie Hoffman said their burns were not as extensive as initially feared.

Officials at Baton Rouge General Medical Center said Saturday that two men remained in critical condition, while two men remained in serious condition. All four, who are being treated in a burn unit, are employees of oilfield contractor Grand Isle Shipyard and are from the Philippines.

The hospital said it and Grand Isle Shipyard are trying to reach the men’s families in the Philippines.

It’s unclear whether the missing men worked for a contractor. Grand Isle Shipyard employed 14 of the 22 workers on the platform at the time of the incident. A man who answered the phone at the company’s Galliano office on Saturday said no one was available to comment.

Meanwhile, officials said no oil was leaking from the charred platform, a relief for Gulf Coast residents still weary two years after the BP oil disaster illustrated the risk that offshore drilling poses to the region’s ecosystem and economy.

James A. Watson, the director of Louisiana’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, said in a statement Saturday that his agency had begun “an investigation into the explosion and fire aboard a Black Elk Energy production platform offshore Louisiana.”

“Our thoughts and prayers are with those injured and missing and their families,” Watson said. “BSEE is committed to determining the direct and indirect causes of the explosion and will take appropriate enforcement action.”

The Deepwater Horizon blaze killed 11 workers and led to an oil leak that took months to bring under control. Friday’s fire came a day after BP PLC agreed to plead guilty to a raft of charges in the 2010 disaster and pay a record $4.5 billion in penalties.

A sheen of oil about a half-mile long and 200 yards wide was reported on the Gulf surface, but officials believe it came from residual oil on the platform.

There were a few important differences between this latest blaze and the blaze that touched off the worst offshore leak in U.S. history: Friday’s fire was put out within hours, while the Deepwater Horizon burned for more than a day, collapsed and sank.

The site of Friday’s blaze is a production platform in shallow water, rather than an exploratory drilling rig looking for new oil on the seafloor almost a mile deep.

The depth of the 2010 well blowout, a mile below the surface, proved to be a major challenge in bringing the disaster under control.

The Black Elk platform is in 56 feet of water — a depth much easier for engineers to manage if a spill had happened.

A sheen of oil about a half-mile long and 200 yards wide was reported on the Gulf surface, but officials believe it came from residual oil on the platform.

“It’s not going to be an uncontrolled discharge from everything we’re getting right now,” said Coast Guard Capt. Ed Cubanski.

BP’s blown-out well spewed millions of gallons of oil into the sea, about 50 miles southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi River on the east side of the river delta. The crude fouled beaches, marshes and rich seafood grounds.

After Friday’s blaze, 11 people were taken by helicopter to area hospitals or for treatment on shore by emergency medical workers.

The production platform is on the western side of the Mississippi River delta.

“The company continues to cooperate closely with all state and federal agencies,” company officials said in a news release Saturday. “As reported yesterday, this platform was not in operation and had been shut in since mid-August. According to visual reports from this morning, there is no visible sheen in the vicinity of the platform.”

Cubanski said the platform appeared to be structurally sound. He said only about 28 gallons of oil were in the broken line on the platform.

Associated Press writer
Kevin McGill in New Orleans contributed to this story.