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Deadly oil rig explosion puts spotlight back on embattled Gulf drillers

An oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico Friday, reportedly killing at least two. The accident hits an industry trying to improve on safety in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

A day after BP agreed to pay a record $4.5 billion criminal fine for its role in the deadly Deepwater Horizon environmental disaster in 2010, another Gulf of Mexico oil rig exploded, killing at least two workers and injuring as many as 11 on Friday.

While early reports are downplaying the potential for another major environmental disaster, the deadly accident came as the Gulf oil industry tries to shore up a safety record that came under deep scrutiny in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon explosion, which killed 11 workers and resulted in some five million barrels of oil escaping into the Gulf from a broken wellhead.

The explosion and ensuing fire on Friday happened on a permanent oil pumping rig owned by independent driller Black Elk Energy around 10 a.m. Eastern time as workers were using cutting torches to split some pipe on the oil rig.

Early indications showed some oil had escaped from the platform, but Coast Guard officials said it was not “a major oil spill response” and that no oil was leaking from the rig. “It’s not going to be an uncontrolled discharge from everything we’re getting right now,” said Coast Guard Capt. Ed Cubanski.

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The rig is located about 36 miles south of Port Fourchon, La. By afternoon, the main fire on the rig had been extinguished and the Coast Guard had begun its oil-spill response as reports indicated that a half-mile long, 200-yard wide sheen had developed on the water near the stricken platform.

In April 2010, the Deepwater Horizon capsized and sank after firefighting boats failed to get control of the blaze. On Thursday, BP, the company that had leased the rig, pleaded guilty to charges related to the workers’ deaths and accepted a deal that would put two monitors in charge of assessing the company’s safety processes for the next five years.

Unlike the Deepwater Horizon, which was a deep water exploratory rig, the Black Elk rig is a shallow water platform pumping from a permanent wellhead. The rig was not producing oil on Friday, but workers were performing maintenance. After the explosion, two people were confirmed dead, two were still missing, and 11 were injured, four seriously.

“West Delta Block 32 – our thoughts and prayers are with those who are impacted,” the Black Elk Energy website said in large letters Friday afternoon. “We have Black Elk personnel on the scene and en route.”

While the Deepwater Horizon leak brought unprecedented scrutiny to the oil industry’s safety procedures in the Gulf, Friday’s accident is part of a legacy of danger endured by the nation’s oil workers.

Between 2001 and 2010, the US government documented 69 offshore deaths, 1,349 injuries and 858 fires and explosions on offshore rigs situated in the Gulf of Mexico.