Here’s What We Know About Fiery Oil Rig Explosion
The rig, located in one of Louisiana’s most important freshwater ecosystems, was engulfed by flames.
By Sarah Gibbens
An explosion at an oil rig Sunday night near Kenner, Louisiana, left at least seven people injured and one missing as of Monday morning. Two of the rig workers injured sustained critical burns and others sustained trauma from the blast, which happened in Lake Pontchartrain, about 20 miles north of New Orleans. A search-and-rescue mission is still underway to find a missing eighth worker.
In a Facebook Live posted by the New Orleans Times-Picayune, officials from the Jefferson Parish Fire Department said they believed the fire has been contained. It is currently unknown how much oil has spilled into the lake, though initial visual surveys have not reported much.
“The coast guard and the sheriff couldn’t see any environmental impact at all,” said a representative from the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, and environmental group that monitors the freshwater ecosystem’s health. Water quality testing will resume overnight, and officials expect to know more about possible environmental damage by tomorrow morning.
The blast happened less than two miles away from a home, where people reported hearing a loud blast and feeling the ground shake. The area’s residents were reportedly unharmed. There have been no reports of damage beyond the rig, except for some pebbles hitting the side of a building.
The City of Kenner stated on Facebook that the rig was undergoing cleaning when the explosion happened and that cleaning chemicals may have caused the blast. But Jefferson Parish Sheriff Joe Lopinto has not confirmed that theory.
“At this point, it’s all under investigation,” he said, adding that no further details are available.
Commenters on the officials’ Facebook Live, however, continue to demand answers for how and why the explosion occurred. For many in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast, memories of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that coated the region’s coastlines in oil linger seven years later.
Another press conference is planned for 4 p.m. central time Monday, in which authorities will provide updates on the extent of the damage and search efforts for the missing worker.
The Times-Picayune reported that the platform is owned by New Orleans based Clovelly Oil Co. and is used to store and transfer oil. In a press conference, Lopinto noted that the rig also stores natural gas.
While efforts are currently focused on mitigating immediate damage, it’s currently unclear if there will be long-term effects in Lake Pontchartrain. According to a Jefferson Parish press release, environmental group the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation and the Coast Guard will soon conduct water evaluations. Authorities say local drinking water should not be affected, since that is drawn from the Mississippi River.
Lake Pontchartrain is part of a larger ecosystem called the Pontchartrain Basin, which consists of rivers, bayous, and swamps. The region supports a host of wildlife, in addition to large commercial fisheries. A moratorium on new oil and gas wells was put into effect in 2000, but old production facilities linger.
In total, four oil and gas wells are active in the lake. At its peak, there were once 20.
As well productivity declines, smaller companies have taken over many of the facilities from larger ones. And that may increase the risk of accidents, says John Lopez, the director of coastal protection at the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation. Smaller companies may have less resources to maintain aging infrastructure.
“In this decaying industry we may see more spills and ruptures,” he said. “It’s kinda everywhere.”
It may be a matter of time before more environmental impacts are felt in the region, he said.
A DANGEROUS BUSINESS
Older rigs could be more dangerous for workers who maintain them as well.
Oil and gas is a risky occupation, but most injuries and fatalities arise during the extraction process (not during storage and transportation).
In 2015, the most recent year for which the Bureau of Labor Statistics has published information, there were 120 fatal injuries sustained by oil and gas workers in the U.S. Thousands more regularly sustain nonfatal injuries.
Video showed the scene from the Louisiana rig as fires raged. A large plume or bright, orange-red flames emerged from the metal structure and clouds of fire-lit smoke lit up the night sky.