(Washington, DC, September 17, 2003) 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, investigators from the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) reported today in a public meeting.
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. It's my hope that our findings and recommendations will be widely reviewed by similar operations, helping save lives in the future."
CSB lead investigator John Vorderbrueggen pointed to two root causes that led to the tragedy. First, the producer of the waste, Noble Energy, did not recognize its potential flammability nor did it provide appropriate safety information to either T&L or BLSR. This liquid waste, referred to as basic sediment and water, or BS&W, settles to the bottom of storage tanks that contain either crude oil or the liquid hydrocarbons that condense from natural gas (gas condensate). BS&W is commonly sent to deep-well injection sites for disposal. But the material can contain significant quantities of flammable hydrocarbons. When tested, most samples of BS&W obtained by Board investigators were found to be highly flammable, including material from the Noble Energy storage tanks involved in the incident.
"Material safety data sheets -- documents that describe materials and hazards in detail -- should have been prepared by the waste producer and provided to the truck drivers and the disposal facility operators," Mr. Vorderbrueggen said. "Equipped with that information, each party can understand and manage the hazard." The Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDSs) are required for hazardous substances under regulations of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
The second root cause of the accident was that BLSR management did not have safe unloading and handling practices for potentially flammable BS&W wastes. Not recognizing the hazards of the material, the company did not control potential ignition sources or use unloading techniques designed to minimize vapor formation.
Among the contributing causes cited in the report: T&L management did not require oilfield waste generators to provide its truck drivers with MSDSs indicating material hazards. Neither T&L nor BLSR followed relevant safe operating practices recommended by the American Petroleum Institute (API), a prominent industry trade organization.
Vorderbrueggen said that the safety recommendations contained in the report, if widely implemented, will help prevent future accidents involving oilfield wastes. The report 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. Another recommendation requested that OSHA and the U.S. Department of Transportation each issue a special bulletin on the flammability hazards of oilfield wastes. The report also made a variety of individual recommendations to Noble Energy, BLSR, and T&L concerning safe practices and procedures for flammable waste handling.
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)