Deadly Corpus Channel Explosion was Foreseeable & Preventable – We Should be Outraged

Firefighters working against a fire

Ninety percent of accidents in the Oil & Gas sector are a direct result of cost cutting. As a lawyer focused on helping the industry’s victims and their families, I know too well that the vast majority of deadly accidents involving oil tankers, oil and gas pipelines, wells, and offshore platforms are preventable.

The Corpus Christi channel explosion is no exception.

I believe our Corpus Christi community should be outraged.

I saw this one coming – it was absolutely foreseeable. As the Port of Corpus and harbor expand, the inevitable cost cutting leads to deadly accidents.

About 8 a.m. on August 21st, the vessel Waymon L. Boyd hit a submerged natural gas pipeline near the Corpus Christi Channel. An explosion followed, setting both the vessel and a nearby grain elevator on fire. Of the nineteen workers that were on the dredge at the time, four were killed, and six were seriously injured. The fire reignited in the evening, and it was only put out at sometime around 10 p.m. The Waymon L. Boyd sank two days later.

The families of Miguel Martinez, Rafael Espinoza, and Joel Rivera were subjected to tremendous anguish as their relatives were pronounced missing, and rescuers only found them days later, when it was too late.

The National Transportation Safety Board is currently investigating the causes of the incident, and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality- TCEQ has been monitoring air quality around the epicenter of the blast.

Dive and salvage operations began five days after the explosion. Local authorities said in a press release, "A piece of the dredging vessel was located in the middle of the channel and is currently in the process of being safely removed...The Texas General Land Office, state lead for coastal oil spill response, is on the scene and is working to identify and protect Texas natural resources and ensure the spill is contained." At least 1,600 gallons of diesel fuel were removed from the water during the cleanup operation.

Causes of Pipeline Explosions

Exploding gas pipelines are not as rare as they should be in the 21st century. When they happen, it is usually due to one of the following causes:

  • Poor maintenance
  • Metal fatigue
  • Extended corrosion
  • Mechanical damage
  • Inappropriate repair welds
  • Violation of safety regulations
  • Improper channel markings
  • Failure to update markings or to account for tide, currents and dredging

In the case of the Corpus Christi explosion, the ship channel has experienced heavier than usual dredging as a result of the building of a new bridge, while it is not yet known if this had an effect on causing the explosion, when this type work occurs extra precautions must be taken to insure that known dangers, such as pipelines are well marked and located.

All the above causes can be attributed to the industry’s favorite pastime, namely, cutting corners.

Cutting Corners and Endangering Lives

In May of this year, many months before the explosion, I submitted the manuscript of my upcoming book Crude, Slick, and Deadly - Exposing the Dark Side of Big Oil (Sutton Hart Press), to my publisher’s editorial staff. It includes the following eerily portentous section:

“I am looking out my window right now at a tanker coming into the Port of Corpus Christi. The majority of the cargo that comes through the port, which is one of the largest cargo ports in the United States, is liquid, it's petrochemicals.

There are refineries and chemical plants all along the ship channel here in Corpus Christi. It is extremely dangerous. If one of these tankers goes up in flames because an ill-trained crewmember did not follow proper safety procedures, the entire ship channel could blow up, not unlike the Texas City disaster of the not too distant past.

That means putting over 400,000 people's lives at risk, plus the amount of economic devastation and natural disasters that might result from such a tragic event. This would be an even more dangerous time for such an event with the ongoing pandemic.

The Coast Guard is way under-manned when it comes to carrying out the necessary inspections required for safety at our ports. Illegal pollution is an everyday event along the ship channels, the ports, and even within the Gulf.  The Coast Guard does not have the manpower or the vessels to do sufficient policing of the safety of operations and ensure the crews’ training, which almost entirely consists of foreign seamen, many inadequately trained.

The shipping industry involves many hazards, including a lack of training, inadequate safety protocols, and a lack of safety procedures. We have been extremely lucky so far. For the victims and their families in Corpus Christi, their luck ran out.

I predict that the next major Deepwater-Horizon-type disaster we will have in the United States involving the petrochemical industry is going to be a ship-borne explosion in a refinery heavy or grain-elevator heavy area of the country, where there may be a chain reaction involving multiple explosions, multiple fires, multiple fatalities, and billions of dollars’ worth of economic devastation.”

This kind of devastating incident was foreseeable. I saw it coming because nearly all of the industry’s accidents are a direct result of cost-cutting or putting money over time and safety. These accidents are almost always preventable.

Multimillion-dollar Lawsuits, and Why They Matter

Having obtained hundreds of millions of dollars on behalf of injured workers, I know just how important it is to go after companies that knowingly put their employees in harm’s way.

The families of the fatal victims, Martinez, Espinoza, and Rivera, have filed lawsuits against Orion Marine Construction, seeking a total of $150 million for loss of financial support and contribution, loss of services, inheritance, pain and suffering, and funeral expenses. Jose Delgado, who was injured in the explosion, has filed a $10 million lawsuit against the Port Lavaca-based company.

Additional lawsuits filed by Jose Cantu and Lucio Silva, two injured workers, cite as defendants Orion Marine Construction, Orion Marine Group, Epic Midstream Holdings, Epic Midstream Holdings GP, Epic Crude Holdings, Enterprise Products Operating, and Enterprise Products Partners. Cantu and Silva are seeking $100 million each.

According to Silva’s complaint,

"The dredging was performed at the request of the Epic Defendants at the Epic Marine Terminal. The pipeline was owned and/or operated by the Enterprise Defendants. The Epic Defendants and the Enterprise Defendants failed to adequately plan the job, identify the pipeline in question, and warn the crew of the Waymon L. Boyd about the pipeline in question."

I would add that the pipeline was likely not sufficiently marked and the navigational maps are unlikely to have been updated since the start of the Harbor Bridge project.

First Week on The Job

I mentioned inexperienced workers in the quoted excerpt from my upcoming book, and that was precisely Jose Delgado´s case. He was sent to work in that extremely hazardous area during his first week on the job. The blast left Delgado with serious burns on his face, back, and shoulders.

Of all the assignments in the world, does it seem fair that a new hire’s job should involve navigating the waters of one of the most dangerous channels on the planet? Oil tankers entering the Corpus Christi channel are required to have Harbor Pilots who know the ship channel and have years of experience guiding vessels safely to port.

Evidently, this was not a problem for Orion.

And the most outrageous aspect of the matter is that this is not just about Orion or Epic being negligent; it’s an industry wide M.O. which could be summed up as “save money today, worry later.”

Oil and gas producers, shipping companies, and refinery operators are gambling thousands of lives every day. This can only happen because regulations are insufficient. After all, regulators lack the resources to monitor their perilous activities, and, ultimately, because they invariably put profits before safety.

Preventable Fatalities

We all know oil and gas are hazardous substances, but the technology is available to protect workers, communities, and the environment. The problem is those pipeline operators, shipping companies, and extraction corporations are not inclined to implementing safety protocols, installing monitoring devices, or spending on adequate worker training. Updating charts and maps hardly seems unreasonable?

I offer my condolences to the victims of the Corpus Christi explosion, their families, and the whole community of Texas oil and gas workers. I also pray for your safety and thank you for the hard work that allows us to enjoy the fruits of your labor every day in air-conditioned comfort while at home, in our cars or living our everyday lives.

I believe the only way to teach these companies that their cost-cutting and negligence will not be tolerated is by suing them and fighting them aggressively in court, securing large settlements that will make them think twice before endangering oil and gas workers’ lives or taking them to verdict allowing a jury to determine if their actions were reasonable or negligent?.

If you or a loved one have been injured while working in the maritime oil and gas industry, you can sue your employers for compensation.

If you have been hurt on shore on a rig, in an accident involving an oilfield truck or at a pipeline facility, you can sue responsible third parties for compensation beyond what you are entitled to under workers compensation laws. With the help of an oil industry-experienced personal injury attorney, you can contribute to holding operators accountable and making the industry safer.

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