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BP Oil Spill Anniversary Highlights Changes In Industry Safety Standards


Five years ago today, an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico killed 11 workers. Over the course of three months, more than 3 million barrels of oil gushed into the water, killing the wildlife and fouling hundreds of miles of beaches from Florida to Texas. BP owned the rig and has paid out billions of dollars in penalties. And as we're going to hear now, safety standards in the offshore oil industry have been scrutinized, too. Jesse Hardman of member station WWNO reports.

JESSE HARDMAN, BYLINE: Louisiana's Fletcher Technical Community College has been around for decades, offering safety courses for offshore oil employees. Workers used to sit in classrooms, watch videos and take tests - not anymore.

On a recent weekday, 10 students from different oil companies teamed together to practice fighting fire.

MICHAEL BRANNON: We're going to let the fire build up pretty big.

HARDMAN: Michael Brannon operates the hose. He works on an offshore supply boat. His company makes sure he updates his safety training every three years.

BRANNON: It's been drilled into our minds, safety first all the time, you know?

HARDMAN: Fletcher's new $7 million safety training facility stresses the practical. Virtual simulators create offshore safety scenarios, and there's a pool to practice open-water helicopter crashes. That's the main mode of transportation as drilling moves farther out to sea.

Last year there was only one offshore fatality in the Gulf of Mexico. And the year before that, three. Still, oil industry veterans, like Bebe McElroy and her husband Vic, reflect on why, five years ago, 11 officer workers died in the BP accident.

BEBE MCELROY: Something went very, very wrong. I mean, that's the only one that we know of in our lifetime. I hope we never see another one.

HARDMAN: Bebe McElroy runs On-Site Training Inc. The company prepares oil workers on rig safety, hazardous substances, crane operation and more. McElroy says five years ago safety training was good enough to help more than 100 workers survive the BP explosion. She says since that day the industry's become much stricter.

MCELROY: Before the spill, there was the attitude like, OK, you want to come to work for me? Yeah. You got your safety training? Yeah. OK, good. Get on the boat.

HARDMAN: McElroy says since offshore is a family business along the Gulf, it was easy to get a relative to vouch for safety training.

MCELROY: Uh-uh. Not anymore. You're going to have to prove to me you have your training.

HARDMAN: The federal government responded to the 2010 accident by creating the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, or BSEE. Since then, BSEE's updated standards from well design and drilling certification, and increased the number safety inspectors and offshore visits.

Brian Salerno heads the agency. Salerno says whether another BP disaster takes place is partly economic.

BRIAN SALERNO: It costs money to be safe. It costs even more when you have an incident. I think the companies that understand that realize that the money they spend to be safe is a good investment. The ones that are seeking to cut corners, sooner or later that catches up to them.

HARDMAN: And Salerno says he's concerned the recent drop in oil prices could undermine safety for some companies.

SALERNO: Potentially you could see reductions in maintenance, reductions in training of people.

HARDMAN: Sixty-year-old Kurt Lirette has spent most of his adult life working offshore. He's been injured and seen a co-worker die. He says safety standards have improved in the last five years, but he says oil companies and federal regulators are often a step slow.

KURT LIRETTE: We always react to an incident. We're not proactive. We react to anything that happens.

HARDMAN: Case in point, a few months ago an 800-foot cargo ship was headed straight for an offshore platform near Lirette's rig. He called the Coast Guard for help. The boat missed by just 10 feet. Lirette says he'd never been trained to survive getting hit by a ship. For NPR News, I'm Jesse Hardman in New Orleans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As the new Coastal Reporter, Jesse Hardman will draw on 15 years of worldwide experience in radio, video and print journalism. As a radio reporter he has reported for NPR, BBC, and CBC, and for such familiar programs as Marketplace, This American Life, Latino USA, and Living on Earth. He served as a daily news reporter and news magazine producer for WBEZ in Chicago.