September 29, 2016
The Explosion on West Delta 32 E
The fallout from an accident two years after Deepwater Horizon reveals safety is still an issue for Gulf oil workers.
by Justin Nobel
At 7 a.m. on Nov. 16, 2012, as the morning’s first rays spilled across the Gulf of Mexico, nine Filipino men began their workday on an oil platform about 10 miles off the coast of Louisiana. To these skilled laborers, in the U.S. on temporary visas, it was perhaps just another day out on the cobalt-blue Gulf, working a foreign nation’s offshore oil patch so they could send money back to their families 8,000 miles away. But Ellroy Corporal, Jerome Malagapo, and Avelino Tajonera had a difficult task that morning: upgrading a pipe that helped pass oil pumped from beneath the seabed into Louisiana’s vast network of shore-bound pipelines. The job involved welding, which on an oil platform means spraying bits of fire onto a deck loaded with explosive fuel.
West Delta Block 32 Platform E looked like an extremely complicated swim dock, stacked with pipes and tanks. Using a pneumatic saw, one of the men cut away a two-foot section of pipe. Exposed edges were smoothed using an electric grinder. A pair of metal flanges would allow new piping to fit seamlessly into the old section. One worker held the first flange, another squared it, and the third was to weld the piece into place. Before the welding torch was lit, one of the men asked the others if they smelled a gas-like odor. Neither responded.
The offshore oil and gas industry calls welding hot work, which requires a special permit outlining safety precautions. But the appropriate permit for hot work that day on West Delta 32 E was never issued. Two portable gas detectors that should have been taken to the platform were broken. The Filipino men were working for an oil industry service provider called Grand Isle Shipyard. According to an investigation by the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, which oversees the U.S. offshore oil and gas industry, a GIS supervisor told the men not to worry and suggested they “hang the non-functioning gas detector up like a ‘decoration’ so everyone could at least see that they had one.” Another contractor had told the workers that the pipes had been purged and that West Delta 32 E was safe. In fact the pipes they were about to apply a welding torch to were laced with flammable hydrocarbon vapors. The platform was a ticking time bomb.
Black Elk Energy Offshore Operations, the platform’s operator, had hired Wood Group PSN, a large oil services firm registered in Scotland that operates in more than 50 countries, to manage operations. A senior Wood Group officer was supposed to attend a morning safety meeting in the galley. This individual could have told the men the pipes had not been purged of vapors or asked why a hot work permit had not been issued. Instead a lower-level Wood Group employee attended the galley safety meeting, but “merely out of coincidence,” according to the BSEE report. The man sat eating his breakfast and didn’t pay attention.
Some electromagnetic waves can circle the earth seven and a half times in one second. Your brain’s nerve signals can cover 22 miles in that time. A radio signal can travel to space and back. By comparison, fire travels slowly. And in the way time seems to halt when the brain is faced with danger, fire must seem especially slow when it’s spreading right in front of your face.
The welding torch was lit. Hydrocarbon vapors ignited. One one thousand. A string of fire ran through the piping and into a set of three oil tanks.
Two one thousand. The tanks exploded, ripped apart at their bases, and launched off the platform like rockets. Two landed in the water, still on fire. One tank, leaking oil, struck a crane and crashed back down onto the platform, which ignited.
Some miles away several men were deep-sea fishing and happened to be filming a video. “Holy shit,” said one. “Something just blew up.” The camera zoomed in to reveal a thick column of smoke piling into the sky.
On West Delta 32 E, at least five Filipino men were covered in third-degree burns and fighting for their lives.
In April 2010, the world got a peek into the secluded world of offshore oil drilling, which employs about 35,000 people on any given day in the Gulf of Mexico. The Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, owned by TransOcean and operated by BP, two of the world’s largest energy companies, exploded, killing 11 men and spewing millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.
Government investigations of the federal agency that oversaw the offshore oil and gas industry resurfaced in the wake of the disaster. They revealed the Minerals Management Service to be riddled with corruption. Regulators had accepted meals, gifts, and sports tickets from companies they were regulating. They had negotiated personal business deals with company representatives. In at least one instance, according to an inspector general’s report, the director had “engaged in sex and drug use” with subordinates. “The oil industry’s cozy and sometimes corrupt relationship with government regulators,” said President Barack Obama in a speech a month after the blowout, “meant little or no regulation at all.” In May, the wayward agency was split into three new ones. BSEE would enforce safety and environmental regulations, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management would manage the development of offshore resources, and a third agency would collect revenue. In September 2010 the Macondo well that had ruined the Deepwater Horizon rig was finally sealed, and the images of oil-drenched pelicans and marshes faded from media coverage.
But for six years, an independent investigative team of scientists and engineers known as the Chemical Safety Board, charged by Congress with examining major chemical accidents across the U.S., studied the spill. They collected nearly 1 million documents, conducted interviews with oil industry representatives from four continents, and spoke to petroleum engineers, safety performance experts, and even sociologists. In April 2016, with the nation having moved on to other issues but pumping even more crude out of the Gulf of Mexico than it was six years earlier, the CSB released its 553-page report. Despite the Obama administration’s attempt to fix the busted regulatory agencies, a “culture of minimal regulatory compliance continues to exist in the Gulf of Mexico,” it stated. The CSB cited “latent failures” in safety equipment, subcontractor chains that weakened accountability and led to “vaguely established safety roles,” and an underfunded and outdated regulatory agency in BSEE, one that lacked “sufficient numbers of technically competent staff” and still operated too close to the industry it was regulating. Furthermore, the CSB stated, regulators had not done enough “to prevent another disaster.”
Events on West Delta 32 E had shown just how right CSB was. One factor in the explosion may have been an issue virtually nobody, even in the media frenzy of Deepwater Horizon, had talked about: human trafficking in the Gulf. In an industry that prides itself on a strong safety culture, an invisible army of hundreds of foreign guest workers was laboring and being housed under severe conditions that, they testified in sworn depositions, amounted to modern-day slavery, encouraged by supervisors to be silent and obedient and passively plow through dangerous work, putting their own lives, the lives of their crew, and the environmental health of the Gulf at risk. The two regulating agencies split from MMS, BSEE and BOEM, told TakePart they were unaware of the existence of trafficking in the industry they regulate. The U.S. Coast Guard, which facilitates visas for some foreign workers in the Gulf, has been accused by mariners and attorneys of failing to adequately oversee visa exemptions for companies hiring oil services workers from overseas. And most of the American public, since 9/11 proudly consuming more of its own fuel and relying less on imports, remains unaware that at the other end of the domestic fuel supply chain that stops at its Subaru is a foreign worker like Avelino Tajonera, who was 49 on the last day he went to work on West Delta 32 E. The father of three came to the U.S. from Dinalupihan, Philippines, only to get trapped in what Terrence Valen, president of the National Alliance for Filipino Concerns, called “one of the worst examples of human trafficking” his group has ever seen. “It was like a prison or slave situation,” Valen said.
The Philippines, a nation of 7,107 islands, is rich in biology and culture but rife with poverty. Agents for companies known in the industry as manpower providers search urban slums and provincial villages throughout the country of 102 million for workers desperate to work in the U.S. The manpower providers pass workers to labor recruitment agencies; both can have close financial ties with U.S. companies that employ the Filipino laborers, and often each can seem like an arm of the same company. Both manpower providers and recruitment agencies are permitted under the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration. “It seems like the system may have evolved,” said Robert Romero, honorary consul general of the Philippines in Louisiana, “to the point where there is a connection between [government officials] who approve the process and those who are labor recruiters.”
The labor recruiters are “very aggressive and tricky,” Romero said, but they are also working with ripe material in the Philippines, where most people speak English and as residents of an island nation, have cultivated a familiarity with maritime life. But despite a decent system of public education and trade schools, the Philippines offers little economic opportunity for its residents. Teachers make about $2,800 a year, construction workers around $1,800. One in 10 Filipinos leaves the country to work abroad. “The tendency is to grab whatever work is available,” said Romero. “If a labor recruitment agency presents a huge opportunity to go overseas and make money for your family, sometimes you grab it without even thinking of the consequences.”
“The oil companies have discovered that we have a lot of unemployed engineers and maritime workers in the Philippines,” said Alvaro Alcazar, a Filipino native and director of urban partners at Loyola University New Orleans’ Twomey Center for Peace Through Justice. “And if they can use them to do the hard work of being on an oil rig, they’ll use them over American workers, because Filipinos are disposable.”
Avelino Tajonera had married his high school sweetheart, Edna, and had two young kids, Maverick and Edrian, along with an older daughter, Jade. To pay for his children’s education and help pave them a better life, he needed money his own country could not provide. Tajonera had worked for 17 years in Saudi Arabia, where foreign laborers are notoriously exploited, and several were recently sentenced to death and beheaded. Working in a country more committed to equality and freedom was appealing. POMI was promising overtime of nearly $25 an hour, free housing, and help becoming a permanent U.S. resident. It seemed like a good opportunity, and in 2008 he signed up.
On land, lodging for Tajonera and other Filipinos working for GIS was in a bunkhouse converted from an old bowling alley near the Galliano, Louisiana headquarters of the company, which is owned by NANA Development Corporation, an Anchorage, Alaska–based entity controlled by indigenous Alaskans. Up to $3,200 a month was subtracted from workers’ paychecks for housing that amounted to a bunk bed in a dormitory, meals, and laundry services. (In nearby Baton Rouge, $3,200 gets you a five-bedroom, three-bath house.) The more the Filipinos earned, the more their housing payment was hiked, according to court documents. The men couldn’t leave the bunkhouse without supervision. They were under 24-hour video surveillance. Doors were locked at 10 p.m. Their social security cards were taken. Obtaining driver’s licenses and opening bank accounts was prohibited. When Eduardo Real tried to walk to Walmart unchaperoned, GIS threatened to send him home. Adrian Payagan became engaged to a GIS secretary and the company threatened to deport him. If workers put up pictures of their families, GIS took them down. It was like “being imprisoned,” Rufino Orlanes testified in 2013, in a multi-plaintiff lawsuit against GIS and others, “inside…Alcatraz.” (GIS CEO Mark Pregeant Sr. responded, “I don’t want to diminish what these workers are saying one bit; I believe you have to listen to them.” But he dismissed the idea that the testimony of the Filipino workers indicated his company needed to in any way alter its practices. “They were treated very well,” he said. “I done spent Christmas nights with them, New Year’s Day with them. I done got the fights so they could watch the fights because they love Manny Pacquiao. I didn’t change nothing because I didn’t have nothing to fix.”)
GIS shuttled its Filipino workers to project locations around the Gulf. In Lafitte, Louisiana, the men lived on a barge in 10-by-10-foot rooms, six workers to a room, sleeping on racks for which the company charged them up to $3,000 a month. In Theodore, Alabama, the Filipinos were charged $2,000 a month for lodging in what Isidro Baricuatro described to attorneys as being like “a haunted house,” with a Porta Potty out back in which you could “actually see human waste coming up.” The work often had nothing to do with the welding or pipe fitting they’d been recruited for. After a storm, Filipinos were forced to clean out the rotted refrigerator of one GIS president and gather clothing of his that had blown away. On other occasions they had to wash the car of another executive. Real, hired like Tajonera to work as a welder on offshore oil platforms, spent a week scraping paint in a restaurant co-owned by a GIS executive. Pregeant allowed that Filipino workers may have done onshore jobs they had not been contracted for, but, he asked, “What’s wrong with that? It’s not like they didn’t get paid.” He shrugged off the cost of housing GIS charged, saying he had friends who paid more for their homes. Still, this was not what the Filipinos had imagined they would find in America. This was, they said, even worse than Saudi Arabia. “There you can go out freely,” Baricuatro told attorneys. “Here you can’t. Not even walk around, you can’t.” This was, testified carpenter Noel Mallari, “slavery.”
Filipinos are not alone. “Our flawed visa system opens the door to coerced labor and the exploitation of migrants in the United States,” said Jennifer Gordon, a Fordham University law professor and immigration expert. The worst abuses often occur in the Deep South and along the Gulf Coast. While working for a Southeast blueberry grower in 2012 one Guatemalan worker, in the U.S. on a guest worker visa, complained of being paid so little he had to venture off into the woods and scrounge for herbs to eat, according to a 2013 Southern Poverty Law Center report. In 2009, Jamaican women brought to the U.S. to clean Florida hotels were paid so infrequently they took to eating food that guests left behind. North Carolina forestry contractors are notoriously abusive; one housed foreign tree planters in a storage shed, where they needed to light a gas grill to stay warm through the winter. A company called Signal International recruited 590 Indian welders and pipe fitters to repair offshore platforms damaged in Hurricane Katrina; when not offshore, the men were crammed 24 to a trailer in an isolated Mississippi labor camp and watched over by armed guards.
“The reality occurring behind closed doors down these back roads is really quite disturbing,” said Jacob Horwitz, Organizing Director for New Orleans–based National Guestworker Alliance. “Everyone from a gas station owner with two guest workers living in a dilapidated shack behind the store preparing deer meat to huge corporations are taking part in this manorial system of second-class labor.”
The system is so pervasive that millions of American consumers play a part in supporting it. Hershey’s used the J-1 visa, intended for cultural exchange students, to bring young people from around the world to its chocolate packing plant in Palmyra, Pennsylvania, replacing local workers. The exchange students trudged about lifting 60-pound boxes under the threat of deportation. “The J-1 program,” said NGA Legal Director Jennifer Rosenbaum in a 2013 memo, “has been transformed by employers into a vast, poorly regulated, low-wage temp worker program, where severe exploitation is par for the course.” The statement seems to apply to many visa channels. A Los Angeles bakery recruited Filipino workers on E-2 visas, intended for investors with business in the United States. The workers were promised great pay, but a 2015 lawsuit told a story of 17-hour workdays, no overtime pay, being forced to clean and landscape the owner’s estate, and lodging in a laundry room.
The U.S. visa system allows corporations to pick and choose the best pathway for channeling cheap labor into their particular industry as if ordering from a foreign worker dining menu. The State Department lists more than 80 types of visa, including the NATO1 for NATO officers, the O1 for exceptional athletes, artists, and scientists, and the H-2A and H-2B, which are meant to allow in temporary workers in agriculture, landscaping, hospitality, and other industries. Employers have grown brazen in their exploitation of the system.
GIS used three types of visa to bring at least 450 Filipino welders, pipe fitters, and scaffolders to Louisiana between 2005 and 2013. The H-2B, which is for a year, can be extended twice, and has some worker protections, accounted for only about 10 percent of the company’s workers. The E-2 is for two years and can be extended indefinitely. The number of E-2s granted by the U.S. government has shot up in recent years, from 24,033 in 2009 to 41,162 last year. One reason may be that the E-2 is overseen not by the Department of Labor but by the Department of Homeland Security. This means, according to an NGA Web page, “U.S. labor and immigration enforcement agencies do not know about the locations of employment or even the existence of most E-2 workers.”
Pregeant said he was introduced to Filipino guest workers in July 2004 on a GIS job in Nigeria. He was impressed: “They speak English, they work very safe, and the quality of their work is outstanding.” Randolf Malagapo and another Filipino, Danilo Dayao, were in charge of looking after the men, and Pregeant formed a connection with the two. GIS finished the Nigeria project around June 2005; in August, Katrina struck, damaging oil platforms around the Gulf, and the company had jobs to fill. “There was no labor to be found in Southern Louisiana,” said Pregeant, “so we reached out to the same people who had those Filipinos.”
They were at a United Kingdom–based company called V.Group, one of the largest suppliers of maritime personnel in the world. A wing of the company called V People Manpower Philippines (now V Manpower Philippines), using the Philippines-based manpower provider component of the company, Pacific Ocean Manning, supplied 100 workers to GIS to carry out repairs on the Gulf of Mexico platforms.
As Pregeant tells it, Filipino workers let GIS know its recruiters in the Philippines were taking advantage of them. “I didn’t like that,” he said. “So we…found our own recruiting company.” In 2009, Malagapo and Dayao founded DNR Offshore Crewing Services Inc. The group served as the Philippines-based manpower provider for, and acted in concert with, the Galliano-based labor recruitment company D&R Resources to bring Filipino workers into the U.S. Dayao and Malagapo together also owned 50 percent of D&R; the other 50 percent was owned by Thunder Enterprises. Four of that company’s five owners were members of the Pregeant family.
In 2006, about 70 percent of the Filipino workers brought to the U.S. to work for GIS came in on E-2 visas, but, Pregeant said, “The U.S. government shut us down.” GIS’ visa pathway became the B-1 (OCS), which is specially designated for workers on the Outer Continental Shelf (defined as all submerged lands lying more than three miles offshore). Most of the Gulf of Mexico’s offshore oil and gas operations occur on the OCS. West Delta 32 E was there. All OCS vessels, rigs, and platforms must be operated by U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents, but there are several exceptions—such as if the president declares a national emergency, a vessel or platform is more than 50 percent foreign owned, or there’s a shortage of qualified U.S. citizens and permanent residents available to do the work. In these cases the U.S. Coast Guard can grant an exemption to a company, allowing it to bring in a foreign worker on the B-1 (OCS) visa to work on the shelf. Since 2011, all GIS’ Filipino workers have come to the U.S. on this visa.
“It is a very simple process,” said Pregeant. To obtain the necessary exemptions, he explained, GIS sends a letter to the Coast Guard referencing platforms the company will be working on and a list of workers intended for the jobs. Pregeant said of exemption letters the company filed, “We would put everyone’s name who worked for us. There might be 300 names.” GIS exemption requests paved the way for a hundred or more Filipino workers to enter the U.S. every year between 2011 and 2015 on work assignments for GIS.
If you complain, you get fired, you get sent home and you never come back no more.
EDUARDO REAL, A FILIPINO GUEST WORKER IN THE OFFSHORE OIL AND GAS INDUSTRY, IN A 2013 COURT DEPOSITION
To get a Coast Guard exemption employers are supposed to demonstrate that they are trying to hire qualified U.S. citizens or resident aliens for these jobs by placing ads in newspapers, on the internet, and at trade shows and job fairs. But NGA’s Jacob Horwitz discussed several ways companies fudge the effort to get exemptions so they can hire cheaper labor from overseas—by making the jobs described in the ads seem undesirable or advertising in papers that are not well read. Sometimes, when Americans apply, employers simply tell them to go away. (Pregeant said GIS tries to recruit locally, but faces competition from employers for onshore oil industry construction jobs, which pay better.) “These exemptions,” wrote maritime lawyers Charles Blocksidge and Jonathan Waldron in the April 2009 issue of Marine News, have become “commonplace in facilitating OCS operations.”
In 1999, the Coast Guard proposed regulations to address mariner safety and health issues on the shelf, including fire protection and B-1 (OCS) visa exemptions. Capt. Richard Block, author of 17 mariner-related textbooks and a veteran skipper in the Gulf of Mexico’s offshore oil service industry, spent years writing letters to the Coast Guard concerning the progress of the proposed regulations. Every communication, he said, went unanswered. Meanwhile, the Independent Petroleum Association of America and other industry groups wrote their own letters, successfully stalling the regulations. “The offshore oil industry considers U.S. Coast Guard enforcement of certain federal law is a joke and privately hold them up to ridicule,” Block wrote in a 2005 report of the Gulf Coast Mariners Association, a merchant marine advocacy and watchdog group for which he served as secretary. That group later became the National Mariners Association, representing more than 125,000 American mariners. In a 2010 National Mariners Association letter to President Obama, Block wrote, of the proposed regulations, that the “Coast Guard at the highest levels…simply sandbagged the issue…. The rulemaking was unpopular with the offshore oil industry,” which “was given free reign [sic] for years and allowed to do pretty much whatever it decided to do free of Coast Guard restraint.”
Asked whether the Coast Guard investigates human trafficking among holders of B-1(OCS) visas, Lieutenant Commander Steven Elliott, who works in the Office of Commercial Vessel Compliance in the Coast Guard’s Foreign & Offshore Compliance Division, said, “The only thing that would drive us to look at that would be if we had a report of a situation where there was human trafficking. And as far as I am aware we have not had any reports like that within industry, from outside reports, from anyone, that there is any situation like that.”
On a stormy August afternoon, Block, now 81 and in less-than-perfect health, sat on the porch of his Houma, Louisiana home, reflecting on the fight. “It was a huge battle,” he said. “You can’t fight against the big money, and the big money doesn’t want to solve any of the problems.” In 2014 the National Mariners Association disbanded. “Our people were just overworked,” Block said, sighing. “And worn down.”
Avelino Tajonera was brought to the U.S. on a B-1 (OCS) visa. When not residing in the housing GIS provided, he worked on some of the largest and most advanced oil rigs in the industry, such as Shell’s Ursa, a $1.5 billion platform half as tall as the Empire State Building that can pump 150,000 barrels of oil a day, and BP’s Mad Dog platform, which hovers over water nearly a mile deep.
The Filipinos’ inferior status tracked them out to sea. Unlike their American counterparts, the men sometimes experienced wage theft. Often in tight platform sleeping quarters with triple bunk beds, American workers invariably claimed the bottom levels, which provided easier bathroom access. Filipinos were forced to sleep on the top bunks, and took to urinating in bottles at night.
The men learned to fear their bosses, swallow complaints, and mutely do their work. “Even if it seems like we were sweating blood already,” Noel Mallari testified of his American supervisors, “they seemed to be not satisfied.” Rufino Orlanes recalled for attorneys, also in the suit against GIS, that when he talked back to supervisors once in 2011, the incident was enough for GIS to essentially blacklist him for more than a year. “I was just fighting for the safety of my crew,” he later told attorneys. Eduardo Real said in his deposition, “If you complain, you get fired, you get sent home and you never come back no more.” That’s “one reason why I feel it’s unsafe for my work.”
Real had grounds to feel unsafe. In 2009 an explosion on a Chevron platform scorched him, leaving second- and third-degree burns. He was taken to Baton Rouge Medical Center’s renowned burn center, but after just two days, Randolf Malagapo and another man responsible for bringing the Filipinos into the country retrieved Real, telling him he’d be going to a different hospital. Instead, according to court documents, Real was brought to Malagapo’s home in Galliano. “I should really be in the hospital while I’m still healing,” Real told attorneys. But he remained at Malagapo’s for a month, covered in bandages, one hand unusable and the other injured so badly he was unable to grasp anything. He was looked after by Malagapo’s wife, who was busy raising two children. Once a week he was brought to a clinic in the yard of a GIS facility. (Eduardo Real “did not have third degree burns,” said Pregeant; his injuries were more like “a really bad sunburn.”)
The offshore oil and gas industry cites something called Stop Work Authority as one of its most successful safety measures. “If you notice at-risk behavior going on, take the initiative and call a quick time-out,” reads one slide of a PowerPoint deck on Stop Work Authority produced by Halliburton, the oilfield service company once run by former Vice President Dick Cheney. “We also have a stop-work authority process that each employee is encouraged to utilize,” GIS Senior Vice President Mark Pregeant Jr. testified in the suit against his company and others, “if he feels something is unsafe, unfair, if they don’t feel they [are] getting the correct backing from their current supervisor.”
But investigators outside the industry think Stop Work Authority is a weak safety measure. “The Stop Work is like a last-ditch effort,” said Cheryl MacKenzie, a lead CSB investigator. By the time you reach that point, “it is already too late.” In its report on the Deepwater Horizon explosion, the CSB laid out several reasons why Stop Work Authority is a flawed safety tool. It assumes workers have the appropriate information to know a hazardous situation has developed. It requires workers to stop a complicated operation during its most challenging time. And it puts the onus of preventing a disaster on workers rather than supervisors.
Among the multiple agencies that regulate the offshore oil and gas industry, no one in government seems to have noticed that hundreds of Filipino workers were being systematically mistreated, forced to live in inhumane conditions, discouraged from following their industry’s safety practices, and denied appropriate medical care. While President Obama applauded splitting the MMS into three agencies, critics argued the separation would enable the agencies to pass the buck when it came to difficult regulating issues. Like, say, human trafficking.
“That is BSEE’s purview, not ours,” BOEM Director Abigail Ross Hopper told TakePart when asked whether she was aware of human trafficking occurring in the Gulf of Mexico’s offshore oil and gas industry. Posed the same question, BSEE Deputy Chief of Public Affairs Eileen Angelico said the agency “wouldn’t necessarily have a way to know that unless it was brought to our attention.” Inspectors visit offshore production platforms like West Delta 32 E once a year, she said. When asked if these investigators were trained to look for the telltale signs of trafficking, Angelico replied, “What are the telltale signs of trafficking?” She added, “Federal agencies get their authority from laws. This is not within our regulatory responsibility to search out human trafficking conditions.”
The National Human Trafficking Resource Center, among other organizations, describes trafficking indicators in detail on its website. It has even posted notices about human trafficking in gas station bathrooms across coastal Louisiana.
Spotting a trafficking situation is just one way BSEE might have prevented the West Delta 32 E explosion. Another way would have been with restrictions on the platform’s operator, Black Elk.
The company has a long history of safety violations. Black Elk began operating in the Gulf in March 2010. From that date through October 2012 BSEE conducted 238 inspections on the company’s platforms and wells and found 315 issues of noncompliance, or what the agency calls INCs. On 12 occasions the facility had to be “shut-in,” meaning all operations were ceased, because the violation was “considered severe or threatening to the safety of personnel or the environment.” A query on a BSEE Web page that tallies INCs revealed that in the year preceding the explosion, from Oct. 31, 2011, to Oct. 31, 2012, out of 170 operators in the Gulf, Black Elk, which ranked 10th in number of inspections conducted, was tied for first for Facility Shut-in, the most severe type of INC, and second for Component Shut-in, the second most severe.
Asked why, if some operators were so glaringly racking up INCs, the agency didn’t prohibit them from operating in the Gulf, Angelico said that “when you have a company that gets that bad, usually what happens is the company would end up going bankrupt or stop operating on their own.” Black Elk entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings on Sept. 18, 2015, and began liquidating July 13, 2016. Between those dates, out of 141 operators in the Gulf, Black Elk was again one of the industry leaders in INCs, ranking second for Facility Shut-ins. Since BSEE was formed in 2011, no firm has been banned from operating in the Gulf. (Angelico said that one is in the process of being banned.)
GIS has more than 1,500 employees and 19 facilities. Often many of its top brass gather to work about 20 miles west of New Orleans, in the large brick-faced home of Mark Pregeant Sr. One morning in September, two lawyers examined papers at a granite counter in the kitchen. A cordial man known as House, Pregeant’s six-feet-seven, 380-pound driver, hovered about the kitchen. Pregeant sat comfortably on a wicker couch in a sunroom that overlooked a swimming pool surrounded by tiny palm trees. He wore blue jeans, sneakers, and a white Armani T-shirt. Talking to a reporter, he said, was “against my lawyer’s advice, but I really don’t care. I have nothing to hide.” He spoke candidly in his thick Cajun accent, a pack of Kools beside him on the couch.
Pregeant said GIS had a stellar safety record. Earlier this year the company celebrated six years of work on a major offshore oil platform without any recorded OSHA violations, according to GIS’s website. He cited the company’s sophisticated training center, where workers simulate being stranded at sea in a storm, escaping a crashed helicopter, and feeling their way out of a smoky room.
Pregeant returned several times to the point that if GIS were such a bad employer, Filipinos would not keep returning to work for the company. The drop in oil prices has slowed demand for the company’s services, he said, and the company now has only 30 Filipino workers, but DNR “probably have 500 Filipinos ready to come.”
“If I held you in prison and I sent you home, would you come back to go back in prison?” he asked. “It don’t even sound right.” He dismissed the idea that the Filipinos’ employment situation back home was so dire that regardless of abuses they kept returning to GIS. “If you brought a turtle to your house,” said Pregeant, “and every time he stuck his head out you hit him on the head with a spoon, do you think he would keep sticking his head out?…If someone was treating me wrong, I wouldn’t go back.”
“We are not the biggest company in the Gulf of Mexico because we always do the wrong thing,” he said, “and 500 Filipinos wanting to come work for us speaks a lot louder than five or six that are complaining.” A settlement in the case against GIS and others was reached last year, for an undisclosed amount. The plaintiffs are prohibited from speaking about the case or the terms of the settlement, according to advocates.
To show that GIS was treating its Filipino workers fairly, Pregeant arranged for a tour of the Galliano bunkhouse. GIS paid $2.5 million to convert the former bowling alley to sleep 217. “We have nothing to hide,” said facilities manager Albert Besson, showing the way down long carpeted hallways. He pointed out a laundry room, where he said workers’ laundry is done for them, a large karaoke room—“The Filipinos really enjoy karaoke,” said Besson—a well-equipped exercise room, and the small, windowless dorms, each containing two or four bunk beds. The bunkhouse was merely a way station, explained Besson, for Filipinos and other GIS workers between stints offshore. Seven Filipinos were lodged in the bunkhouse, and the following day they were headed offshore. “We haven’t had a new Filipino in many years,” said Besson. “They’re all repeat customers. These guys are choosing to work for Grand Isle Shipyards. The phones are constantly ringing with 40 of them out in some village or province, but right now the work doesn’t dictate the ability for us to bring them back.”
It was lunchtime, and in a small cafeteria half a dozen Filipino men sat eating a traditional dish of noodles with carrots and green beans called pansit. “The only thing I can tell you is if we had any complaints we would not be with the company right now,” said 39-year-old pipe fitter Romeo Capili, who said he is from the Philippine island of Luzon and has been working for GIS since 2005. “I guess the people who are still here, we’re OK.” Three security cameras could be seen on the ceiling just outside the lunchroom. Besson said GIS permitted workers two trips a day to Walmart, but when asked if the Filipinos could walk to the store unsupervised, he said “their visa places restrictions on movement.” (Horwitz said by email, “They can absolutely go buy groceries by themselves. They just can’t work elsewhere.”)
Many of the men in the lunchroom said they had worked in offshore oilfields the world over. Capili said it was difficult to leave behind family. But, he added, “We don’t have enough jobs in the Philippines. So it’s a better job if you go overseas. You have to sacrifice.”
Ellroy Corporal likely died immediately. His body was recovered by divers the following day. Jerome Malagapo was hurled, or perhaps stumbled, off the platform and into the Gulf. One contractor noticed a man in the water “waving his arms and struggling to stay on the surface,” the BSEE investigation stated. If anyone made an effort to rescue him, the report does not mention it. Ten days later Malagapo’s body was recovered about 20 miles from the platform, so decomposed Lafourche Parish coroner John King needed dental records to identify him.
Avelino Tajonera and three other Filipino men were critically injured. Helicopters evacuated them to the same Baton Rouge burn center that Real had been taken to, and then removed from, by GIS associates.
Seven days after the explosion Tajonera died. His family had rushed from the Philippines to be with him. They arrived just hours before he succumbed to his injuries.
Nerissa Allegretti, the Midwest coordinator for the National Alliance for Filipino Concerns, along with a Filipino Catholic priest, visited the survivors at the hospital around six weeks after the accident. “What I remember was they had no eyebrows, no eyelashes,” said Allegretti. “They were all covered with bandages. Most of their bodies were burnt. Everyone was saying it was a miracle they survived.” One man had a serious wound on his throat and had been given a tracheotomy. Talking to them was difficult. “They were saying they were thirsty from the heat, like they wanted to pour water on themselves,” she said. One man, 52-year-old Renato Dominguez, told her the explosion threw him far across the platform. People were running from the flames, but, charged with adrenalin and a sense of responsibility, he ran back into the fire. The platform, Allegretti said he told her, had become “like an inferno, like hell.” Only later did Dominguez realize he was severely injured and that his boots had melted.
Two months after the accident NAFCON and another Filipino advocacy group, the Philippine Forum, held a press conference about the explosion at a Filipino community center in New York City. They were joined by a handful of former GIS workers, who by this point had escaped from the company with the help of Catholic Charities’ New Orleans chapter. Other labor advocacy groups attended in solidarity.
“We are the Mexican, Indian, and other workers who went on strike to protest forced labor at a crawfish processing plant,” said Angel Martinez of the People’s Organization for Progress. “We were also forced to work like machines doing 15- to 24-hour shifts per day…. We are here to fight side by side with our Filipino brothers.”
“We are here to fight,” said Avelino Tajonera’s daughter, Jade. Filipino workers “are humans, not animals, not robots. The company had taken away my father. If we ask for the life of our father, can they give it back to us? He died because of the greed of the company.”
West Delta operator Black Elk Energy Offshore Operations and its contractor Grand Isle Shipyard face criminal charges concerning the explosion on West Delta Block 32 Platform E. GIS is charged with three counts of involuntary manslaughter and one count of violating the Clean Water Act. Black Elk faces three counts of involuntary manslaughter, eight counts of failing to follow proper safety practices under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, and one count of violating the Clean Water Act. The case was scheduled to go to trial in January 2017, but a stay has been issued. In early September, Wood Group pleaded guilty to a single, federal criminal count of violating the Clean Water Act.
More than 1,000 Filipinos work in the Gulf of Mexico’s offshore oil and gas industry, said Robert Romero. When asked if any of them were still caught in a trafficking situation, Romero said, “I leave that up to the government agencies trying to control them.” But BOEM and BSEE say monitoring trafficking of foreign workers in the offshore oil and gas industry is not their job, and the Coast Guard continues to grant B-1(OCS) exemptions.
More Filipinos leave their country to work abroad every year. Government figures show that 1,470,826 left in 2010, or an average of 4,018 a day. Last year, an average of 6,092 Filipinos a day left.
In January 2013, Allegretti visited the Philippine island of Cebu, where blast victim Jerome Malagapo had lived, in Danao City, before he came to Louisiana. She explained the GIS case to an organizer named Marivic Castillon, who works with a local human rights organization and knows the area. Allegretti wanted to convey to people in Danao City what was happening to some of the welders and pipe fitters who signed up to work for GIS and others in the Gulf. Castillon visited the city the following month and reported back to Allegretti that the residents did not want to hear what she had to say. “They all said, with all due respect,” explained Allegretti, that Malagapo had “been sacrificed in order for people to have a job.”
“They would rather keep quiet,” she said. “There are few good jobs in their region, and they are having enough trouble feeding their families. Work like this is what they must do to survive.”
They feel, said Allegretti, “they are destined to the situation.”