(Washington, DC, September 17, 2003) The U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) unanimously approved two investigation reports in a public meeting today Washington, concluding that last January's deadly fire at an oilfield waste disposal facility south of Houston could have been avoided if the companies involved had safer procedures for handling flammable wastes.
The Board called on the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates oilfield 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 January 13 accident in Rosharon, Texas, occurred as two tank trucks unloaded waste liquids into an open collection pit at the BLSR Operating Ltd. disposal facility. Unknown to either the drivers or BLSR personnel, the waste material was highly volatile, and a flammable vapor cloud formed in the unloading area. Vapor was drawn into the air intakes of trucks running diesel engines -- causing them to race and backfire and the flammable cloud ignited. Two BLSR employees standing near the trucks were killed in the fire, and three others suffered serious burns. The two drivers, who were employed by T&L Environmental Services Inc., were also burned after rushing back to their trucks when they heard the engines accelerate. One of the drivers died several weeks later from his injuries.
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 natural 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. The second root cause of the accident was that BLSR management did not have safe unloading and handling practices for potentially flammable wastes. BLSR did not control potential ignition sources or use unloading techniques designed to minimize vapor formation. The third root cause was that T&L management did not require oilfield waste generators to provide its truck drivers with information on material hazards.
The liquid waste involved in the accident known as basic sediment and water or BS&W comes from storage tanks that contain either natural gas condensate or crude oil. When tested, most samples of BS&W obtained by Board investigators were found to be highly flammable, including material from the Noble Energy gas condensate storage tanks involved in the incident.
In addition to the Texas Railroad Commission, the Board directed new safety recommendations to OSHA, the U.S. Department of Transportation, Noble Energy, BLSR, and T&L.
In the second official action, the Board concluded that a release of potentially deadly hydrogen sulfide at the Environmental Enterprises Inc. (EEI) waste treatment facility in Cincinnati, Ohio, on December 11, 2002, resulted from treating chemical wastes in an inappropriate vessel. That investigation led to a CSB Case Study, which will be made available from csb.gov.
The hydrogen sulfide release caused a maintenance worker to collapse after he walked near the waste vessel. The victim, who was initially unable to breathe, was treated at a local hospital. Investigators traced the gas release to an unforeseen chemical reaction between sodium sulfide and acid that occurred during an effort to treat mercury-containing wastewater. The waste vessel, known as a clarifier, had no system to collect and remove dangerous gases.
The Board found the EEI incident could have been avoided if workers had been trained on hydrogen sulfide hazards, had been given appropriate written procedures for performing treatment operations, or had been informed about the requirements of an earlier city order to abate hydrogen sulfide hazards at the plant. A hydrogen sulfide warning device, installed under provisions of the city order, was not working at the time of the December 11 incident. The CSB is an independent federal agency charged with investigating industrial chemical accidents. CSB investigations look into all aspects of such events, including physical causes such as equipment failure as well as inadequacies in safety management systems. Typically, the investigations involve extensive witness interviews, examination of physical evidence, and chemical and forensic testing.
The Board does not issue citations or fines but does make safety recommendations to plants, industry organizations, labor groups, and regulatory agencies such as OSHA and EPA. Further information about the CSB is available from www.csb.gov.
For more information, contact:
Daniel Horowitz, 202-261-7613 or 202-441-6074 (cell)
Sandy Gilmour Communications, 202-261-7614 or 202-251-5496 (cell)