Alaska Native-owned subsidiary under investigation in Gulf of Mexico oil explosion

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A subsidiary of Alaska’s Native-owned NANA Development Corp. is under investigation by members of Congress and federal regulators after the deaths of three workers in an offshore oil platform explosion in November in the Gulf of Mexico.

The NANA subsidiary, Grand Isle Shipyard of Louisiana, also is battling a lawsuit from former workers who allege they were forced into “involuntary servitude” and inhumane conditions after being lured from the Philippines with false promises of good-paying jobs.

“Defendants have in fact for years operated what is essentially a labor camp for Filipino workers,” alleges the lawsuit. “Plaintiffs and other Filipino workers were essentially imprisoned by defendants from the minute they set foot in Louisiana.”

Grand Isle Shipyard owner NANA is one of the 13 regional Alaska Native corporations established to foster economic development for Alaska Natives. NANA, which purchased Grand Isle Shipyard in 2011, is the corporation representing Natives of Northwest Alaska.

NANA Development Corp. president Helvi Sandvik said in an interview Thursday that Grand Isle Shipyard is an “outstanding company.” Sandvik said she stands behind its management. She said the allegations of slave labor in the lawsuit are unfounded.

Grand Isle Shipyard does maintenance and repair work for offshore petroleum platforms in the Gulf of Mexico. Congress and federal investigators are probing the November explosion and fire that killed Filipinos working for the company. They died while working on a platform owned by Black Elk Energy, which also is the subject of investigation and has been warned by federal regulators about its safety record.

Grand Isle Shipyard has had past issues, including a 2007 incident in which two of its workers died after inhaling poisonous hydrogen sulfide gas. The Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration declared it a “serious violation” and fined the company $7,000, according to federal records. NANA president Sandvik said Grand Isle Shipyards’ review of that incident changed industry practices. She said the company had an outstanding safety record going into the unexplained November explosion.

“There was the incident that occurred which is under investigation and certainly we’re concerned when anything happens that impacts any of our employees,” Sandvik said. “But as that particular incident relates to Grand Isle Shipyard overall it is not consistent, they don’t have a track record of incidents like that.”

Grand Isle is refusing to cooperate with the federal Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, which looks into major industrial accidents including refinery explosions and chemical spills. The board is weighing whether to launch a full probe of the November explosion.

“We sent a subpoena to Grand Isle Shipyard and they contested our jurisdiction,” said Daniel Horowitz, board spokesman. “We’re conferring with our Justice (Department) partners and seeing how to proceed.”

David Korn, an attorney for Grand Isle Shipyard, said the company is, however, cooperating with the ongoing investigation by the federal Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement into the explosion. Bureau spokesman Eileen Angelico did not respond to questions about the investigation and the level of cooperation by Grand Isle Shipyard.

Members of Congress, including California Rep. Henry Waxman, the top Democrat on the House Energy Committee, have launched their own probe into what happened. They sent a letter last month to Grand Isle Shipyard asking for answers on the explosion.

“In order to better understand your company’s role in the recent Black Elk rig explosion, we ask that you provide our staff with a briefing on your understanding of the reasons for the explosion … we also ask that you provide us with a briefing on your company’s track record on safety,” the letter said.

The company responded Dec. 14 and suggested such a briefing would be premature because its own internal investigation was far from done. The company said it was having difficulty interviewing employees of other contractors who were on the platform.

The company also is fighting a lawsuit by dozens of former contract workers. They allege recruiters hired by Grand Isle lured them from the Philippines with false promises of good-paying jobs for skilled work.

The lawsuit, filed last year, contends the reality was “modern-day slavery.”

The former workers are suing Grand Isle and various recruiters who are allegedly involved with bringing them over.

The New-York based advocacy group Philippine Forum is calling for Grand Isle, Black Elk and the recruiters to be shut down. Anne Beryl Corotan-Naguit, a member of the group, asserts that Grand Isle robs Filipino workers of their dignity “through severe forms of exploitation and oppression.”

Korn, the Grand Isle attorney, said Thursday that the company “vehemently denies” the charges.

“There are two sides to every story,” he said. “For example, many Filipino workers continue to return from the Philippines to work month after month on Grand Isle Shipyard projects. Grand Isle Shipyard believes that it will prevail in this lawsuit once all the evidence is presented.”

The ex-workers claim they were charged up to $3,200 a month to live in an overcrowded bunkhouse converted from a bowling alley, with four workers assigned to each small room and two community bathrooms shared by at least 100 workers.

NANA Development president Sandvik said the allegations are unfounded and the Alaska Native Corp. stands behind its subsidiary. She said the bunkhouse in Galliano, La., is typical of industrial worker housing found in places such as Alaska’s oilfields.

“NANA has visited the bunkhouse; we’ve had senior executives stay at the bunkhouse,” Sandvik said Thursday.

The lawsuit alleges workers were threatened with deportation if they complained or left company property for more than the approximately one hour they were allowed to shop at Wal-Mart once a week with an escort.

They allege they were locked inside the bunkhouse after 10 p.m., and gates and security cameras kept them in line.

“Defendants closely monitored these living spaces to ensure that Plaintiffs and other Filipino workers would not escape, or attempt to escape,” the lawsuit claims.

The lawsuit also alleges they were forced to work excessive hours at substandard pay. Some ex-workers claim they were forced to live on a barge with four to six workers assigned to rooms approximately 10 feet by 10 feet with “sleeping mats” rather than beds. They allege they were charged between $2,000 and $3,000 a month in living expenses.

“Because Plaintiffs were foreign nationals working in an unfamiliar land, and because they entrusted Defendants not only with both their visa status and their livelihood, they had no option but to bow to Defendants’ exploitative and unlawful employment practices,” the lawsuit claims.