US Chemical Safety Board faults producer, contractors in fatal oil waste accident

By OGJ editors
WASHINGTON, DC, Sept. 19 -- The US Chemical Safety Board (CSB) Wednesday unanimously approved two investigation reports that found a fatal fire at an oil field waste disposal facility near Houston could have been avoided if the involved companies followed safer procedures.

On Jan. 13 two trucks exploded while unloading waste material removed from two wells operated by Houston-based Noble Energy Inc. CSB said a flammable vapor cloud formed in the unloading area, which later became drawn into the air intakes of the trucks' running diesel engines. The vapor then led both engines to race and backfire, igniting an explosion. Three people died, and four were injured; civil lawsuits are pending. The board's investigators contend that neither the drivers, nor the waste disposal facility's personnel knew the material was highly volatile.

Next steps
CSB does not issue citations or fines. Instead it makes safety recommendations to plants, industry organizations, labor groups, and regulatory agencies such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency.

The board called on the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates oil field operations in the state, to require all drillers and producers to comply with federal regulations on communicating hazards to workers and safely transporting hazardous liquids. The board found fault with the gas well's operator Noble Energy, the disposal facility, BLSR Operating Ltd., and contractor T&L Environmental Services Inc.

The board also wants OSHA, the US Department of Transportation, Noble Energy, BLSR, and T&L to consider stronger safety rules. OSHA and EPA spokespeople were not available Friday for comment.

In a prepared statement made available Saturday, the TRC said it had no immediate plans to change existing rules. But commission officials said they also remain committed to keeping workers and the public safe.

"Although the Railroad Commission does not at this time see that any of its regulations need to be modified as a result of this investigation, it is in the process of sending an advisory to all of its regulated commercial waste disposal operators, and permitted waste haulers to advise caution and observance of federal and state regulations when handling basic sediment and water (BS&W) that may be associated with any facility which produces condensate," officials said.

TRC officials added that Commissioner Charles Matthews has asked the staff to review Railroad Commission rules to make sure that the Commission has done all it can to insure the safety of workers and the public. Matthews said, "The Commission is committed to the safety of all Texans. The agency will continue to work with all state, federal and industry segments toward the prevention of accidents."


Industry response
Responding to CSB, Noble Energy defended its safety record, and questioned the investigative report CSB relied on for its findings.

"The board's report covers a very tragic accident. For more than 70 years, our contractors have safely disposed of waste materials from thousands of our well sites throughout Texas and the US," said Noble Energy Senior Vice-President Bill Poillion. "We fully support the mission of the board, however, in this case outside experts have told us that the board's investigators unfortunately missed some important facts and made some erroneous conclusions. This flawed analysis undermines the board's report.

"The real cause of this accident was that the truck engines were left running. Anyone who has ever been to a gas station knows you just don't do that. To make things worse, the trucks were not outfitted with a common safety device that prevents diesel engines from over-racing. The engines began over-racing and one of them backfired, emitting a spark that caused this horrible accident.

"Our hearts go out to the families in our community who were hurt by this terrible accident.

"Over the years our company has won numerous safety awards. We will continue with our efforts to increase safety," Poillion said.

Blame laid on well operators, contractors
But CSB officials said Noble Energy and its contractors could have prevented the accident.

Board Chairman Carolyn Merritt said, "This accident, which took three lives and caused devastating burns to survivors, could have been prevented if the hazard of the waste had been recognized, communicated, and controlled. Oil and gas field wastes can be highly flammable and need to be handled appropriately. We urge similar operations around the country to review our findings and recommendations from this case."

Following discussion, the board concluded there were three root causes of the tragedy. First, the producer of the waste, gas well operator Noble Energy, did not recognize the potential flammability of the waste liquid and provide appropriate safety information to either T&L or BLSR, CSB said.

Additionally, BLSR management did not have safe unloading and handling practices for potentially flammable wastes. CSB said BLSR did not control potential ignition sources or use unloading techniques designed to minimize vapor formation.

Finally, CSB said T&L management did not require oil field waste generators to provide its truck drivers with information on material hazards.

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