CSB: Oklahoma oil field blast site had no fence, warnings

Nick Snow
OGJ Washington Editor

WASHINGTON, DC, Apr. 29 -- A rural Oklahoma oil and gas production site where an explosion and fire killed one intruder and injured another was not fenced and apparently did not have warnings posted, US Chemical Safety Board investigators said in their initial report. None of the site’s six tanks, including the one that exploded, had hatches to secure the lids, they added.

“Following this accident, our investigative team was able to observe a number of other oil and gas production sites in the area. The vast majority were unsecured and had no warning signs,” said CSB Investigations Supervisor Don Holmstrom, who leads the federal agency’s regional office in Denver. “Oil and gas sites that lack security measures and warning signs are an accident waiting to happen.”

CSB said the Apr. 14 accident occurred at about 9 p.m. CDT near Waleetka, Okla., while 6 individuals aged 18 to 32 were socializing at the rural site, which was normally unmanned. The site, which had 4 petroleum storage tanks and 2 brine storage tanks, was on private land and operated by two producers, Three MG Family Inc. and Enterprise Energy, which leased the mineral rights. A third company, ScissorTail Energy LLC, operated a gas metering and collection system connected to the production equipment. Five wells were near the tank battery.

“The blast occurred about 10 min after the group arrived at the site. Witnesses said they were attracted as they drove by an open gate on an open highway,” CSB Investigator Vidisha Parasram said at a press conference in Oklahoma City. She said crude in one of the tanks ignited, apparently from a cigarette lighter, as 21-year-old Zach Tangle peered into it. He suffered third-degree burns over 85% of his body and died the next day in a Tulsa hospital. A second member of the group suffered second-degree burns.

‘Readily accessible’
Parasram said CSB investigators found the rural production site east of Oklahoma City and south of Tulsa was easily accessible. “It’s less than a quarter mile off a main road. Many people also cross it to go fishing in a nearby river,” she said. “The catwalk leading to the top of the tank was unsecured and readily accessible. The tank hatches had no mechanism which would permit them to be secured or locked. No fire or explosion warning signs or other warning signage was visible anywhere on the site following the accident.”

CSB Board Member William Wark said, “We’re concerned about these ongoing accidents across the country [that] are needlessly taking the lives of young people. To me, it is self-evident that hazardous oil and gas sites should be secured against unauthorized entry and posted with extensive and specific warning signs. And we need to educate teenagers and young adults to stay away from these sites—they are dangerous.”

In an earlier preliminary analysis, CSB said it found 24 similar explosions and fires occurred at US oil and gas production sites between 1983 and 2009, resulting in 42 fatalities and a number of injuries, all occurring among teenagers and young adults under the age of 25.

CSB said it also found no specific federal standards or industry guidance for security or public protection measures at oil and gas production sites. It said that certain states, including Ohio and Colorado, require fencing and other public safety measures at sites in urban areas, and that Ohio requires tank hatches to be sealed and locked at unattended oil sites.

Holmstrom said state officials told CSB that Oklahoma has approximately 257,000 active and unplugged oil and gas production sites. “Oklahoma requires fencing and warning signs only at sites that have toxic hydrogen sulfide gas hazards, according to state officials,” he added.

Seeks broad effort
Wark said that one possible approach might be the one electric utilities use at substations, which apparently is an industry standard. “But more needs to be done. What we have found throughout the country was a systematic lack of any of this kind of regulation for these sites. We are calling on the oil and gas industry, state legislatures, and local governments to get them secured with prominently posted warning signs,” he said.

CSB already has discussed the problem with the American Petroleum Institute, Independent Petroleum Association of America, and Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association, he said, adding that all say they want to help.

“We realize it’s a problem,” Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association Pres. Mike Terry said in a telephone interview. “Oklahoma has been the most proactive state in trying to educate not only the oil and gas industry, but also the public that these are not safe places to be and that they are places where you can be harmed. The incidents are not as frequent now, and that’s great news. But they still happen.” Operators’ employees and property owners also need access, he added.

A spokesman for the Oklahoma Corporation Commission confirmed that the industry has spent millions of dollars on programs warning the public of dangers at production sites, but added that county and local governments would need to address fencing and other security matters. “We’re happy to work with the industry, the legislature and local authorities in any way that is deemed necessary,” he told OGJ.

Lee O. Fuller, IPAA’s vice-president of government relations, said he met with CSB officials to discuss the problem a month ago. “We asked them to provide more access to their analysis so we can get it out to our membership, and to our cooperating associations which, in many cases, reach smaller producers,” he said, adding, “We want to make them aware of the problem and urge them to consider signing, fencing and other measures to keep people off the property. We will do what we can to make sure there’s a broad understanding among independent producers that these events are occurring and that their cooperation is needed.”

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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