Chevron Nigeria, snubbed emergency calls from its terrified rig workers who asked to be evacuated from a dysfunctional drilling platform that eventually exploded killing two personnel in waters near Bayelsa state, survivors of the January 16 blast have said.
Reuters quotes four of the platform’s workers in testimonies that give solid evidences to back allegations that the sloppy way the US oil company handled the accident may have led to the deaths and helped in prolonging the inferno which lasted for 46 days.
The blaze ended March 2 after Chevron drilled a relief well to stem the gas leak and finally sealed the well on June 18, 2012.
The fire started mid-January after an explosion at one of the company’s Nigerian subsidiaries near North Apoi Oil Platform. Environmental effects on water and marine lives were later reported in Ikebiri Creek in Bayelsa state.
The two personnel who died in the explosion were the installation manager for the rig, Bruno Marce, a French national, and Indian driller, Albert Devadas. They worked for KS Drilling, a subsidiary of Singapore-based KS Energy, a sub-contractor employed by Field Offshore Design Engineering (FODE) Ltd to drill a gas exploration well for Chevron Nigeria.
Blames and denials
Testimonies from some of the 154 workers who were present allege that, instead of addressing the workers’ fears that equipment failures and smoke signalled disaster, Chevron flew extra staff to the platform just before the Jan. 16, 2012, blowout, Reuters reports.
Chevron, the second largest U.S. oil major after Mobil, however denied receiving the evacuation request from the workers of its KS Endeavour rig, saying its staff had the right to call off work if they believed conditions were unsafe.
“There were no evacuation requests received before the KS Endeavour incident occurred,” the energy company said.
But the claim has been punctured by transcripts of accounts from three workers obtained from the offshore oil branch of Britain’s Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) Trade Union. The union refused to name the witnesses to avoid sanctions from Chevron, but said the documents were genuine.
Those accounts were backed by subsequent interviews in Nigeria with a worker who was also on the rig, the news agency reports.
“Chevron knew for over a week that the well was unstable yet they refused to evacuate us,” said one of the rig workers who gave his account to the RMT union.
A Nigerian worker, Omietimi Nana, 28, who was aboard the rig at the time of the blast said many workers called for evacuation.
“We were told we may be evacuated, it was mentioned but it didn’t happen. I don’t know who made the decision not to evacuate but certainly many people wanted to be evacuated because of the situation,” Mr. Nana, a maintenance worker for FODE said.
“About three days before the accident, the drilling company workers told us they wanted to stop drilling because of the gas pressure but they spoke with Chevron who told them to carry on.
“Everyone was talking about how the mud weight had been lost but by then it was too late to stop the gas rising to the surface,” Mr. Nana said.
The dead man saved the rest of the crew
The most senior witness to give his testimony to the RMT, a Frenchman, said a series of pump failures throughout the drilling operation led to a massive build-up of pressure that triggered the blowout.
He said rig engineers held a site meeting and advised Chevron to evacuate staff while well pressure control measures were applied.
“That advice was not heeded and additional personnel were even brought on-board to get ahead of what was believed to be impending strike action,” the Frenchman reportedly said.
The French witness said an earlier attempt to drill an exploration well near the same was abandoned late December after the discovery of a gas leak.
Within days after the company had drilled a second well, said the French witness, rising gas pressure overwhelmed the mud weight in the wellbore spewing gas over the rig, sending workers scrambling for the lifeboats.
“The blowout occurred on Monday at 5.30 a.m., and if Bruno (Marce, the rig manager who died) had not advised as he did that the lifeboats be kept serviced and in functional condition then none of us would have made it out alive,” said the eyewitness.
“Bruno was shouting, but with a very strange voice, over the public address system that everyone should abandon the rig, I really felt for him for if not for his timely intervention myself and others would not have been alive today,” he said.
The witness said that by the time he had reached the lifeboat the rig was smothered in gas. When the lifeboat operator called rig manager Bruno Marce for permission to launch there was no reply, he said. The gas exploded and the lifeboat launched.
“By the time we hit the water the entire rig was engulfed by fire,” he said, describing metal debris raining down.
A second eyewitness described a deafening release of gas followed by “a loud bang and an orange flash as the gas ignited”.
The witnesses described how crew on a barge adjacent to the platform jumped into the water and scrambled into a life raft. The raft quickly began to melt from the heat of the fire, forcing them into the sea to be rescued by fishermen three hours later.
“If it were not for the fisherman those guys would have died in the water,” the French witness said.
In an email reaction to Reuters, Chevron said the January fuel subsidy nationwide strike had disrupted its normal crew changes, but insisted that at no time were approved safe manning levels exceeded.
The company insisted that all personnel present had the power to order a work stoppage if they felt they were in danger.
“Our employees and contractors are fully empowered to exercise stop work authority (SWA) when they sense an unsafe work environment,” it said.
Chevron said its rules require that lifeboats should be kept ready at all times and the crew held weekly drills, one of which was scheduled by the late Offshore Installation Manager (OIM) for the morning of the day before the blow-out happened.
“Like any other personnel, the OIM has full responsibility to stop the operation if he feels conditions are not safe,” the company said.
It added that “Search and rescue operations began immediately upon being made aware of the abandon ship alarms being sounded”. Nearby vessels were directed to aid the rescue.
“152 of the 154 personnel on board the KS Endeavour and the Mako barge were evacuated immediately. Aircraft operations were impacted initially by darkness and by visibility conditions” it said.
FODE declined to comment on the issue, Reuters says, citing a confidentiality clause in its contract with KS Drilling which prevents the company from making public any information about jobs carried out for Chevron.