Lax security and a mishmash of regulations and standards are endangering public safety at oil and gas production facilities nationwide, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board concludes in a new study.
Forty-four people, many of them teens and young adults, perished from 1983-2010 in 26 oil-site accidents that could have largely been prevented, the CSB concludes in Public Safety At Oil And Gas Storage Facilities.
Photos: US Chemical Safety Board
Six teenagers were hanging out last year at this tank site in Weleetka, OK, when Tank 4-22 exploded, killing one of them. The tank contained 155 gallons of crude. Entrances to the site (below) are unmarked.
The danger is especially acute in rural areas, where a sizeable percentage of young people and other residents socialize, hunt and ride four-wheelers for recreation.
3 Explosions, 4 Deaths
CSB initiated its study in April 2010 following a rash of fatal tank explosions:
• On Oct. 31, 2009, two teenagers, aged 16 and 18, were killed when a petroleum storage tank exploded in a rural oil field in Carnes, MS.
• Six months later, a group of youths was exploring a similar tank site in Weleetka, OK, when a tank explosion and fire killed one of them.
• Two weeks later, a 25-year-old man and 24-year-old woman were on top of an oil tank in rural New London, TX, when one of them lit a cigarette. The tank exploded, killing her and injuring him.
All three incidents involved rural unmanned oil and gas storage sites that lacked fencing and warning signs, the Safety Board said.
A similar accident in Texas killed four teenagers in 2003, the board noted.
“Oil and gas storage sites are part of the landscape in many rural American communities,” with more than 800,000 producing facilities nationwide, the report said.
Unlike urban locations, where local codes constrain site choices, rural facilities may be located as close as 150 feet from homes, schools and churches.
|A girl’s bike rests against a tank at a production facility in New London, TX. Earlier that day, another tank at the same site exploded, killing a woman.|
Moreover, the report says, many of the sites are in wooded or isolated areas, “away from public view, often unfenced, unsupervised, and lacking warning signs. They have proven to be a tempting venue for young people looking for a place to gather, and socialize.”
Unfortunately, the board adds, the unsuspecting introduction of a lighter, match, cigarette or static electricity near tank hatches or vents can “trigger an internal tank explosion, often launching the tank into the air and killing or injuring people nearby.”
The CSB’s study examined federal, state and local regulations; tank design; and industry standards and practices recommended by the American Petroleum Institute (API) and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). It also administered a survey to gauge the public’s view of these sites.
Among the findings:
Inherently safer tank design could have prevented the formation of a flammable atmosphere inside the tanks and likely prevented all 26 accidents identified by CSB. Inherently safer tank design features, similar to those already in use in refineries and other downstream storage tanks, reduce flammable vapor emissions from the tanks or otherwise prevent an external flame from igniting vapor inside tanks.
A patchwork of security requirements is leaving safety gaps. Although a few major cities and some states, including California and Ohio, require fencing, locked or sealed tank hatches, warning signs and/or other security measures for oil and gas production sites, many do not.
Texas and Oklahoma, sites of major oil producers, require fencing and warning signs for certain sites that have toxic gas hazards, but not for all sites with flammable storage tanks.
“After reviewing the work of our investigators, I believe that these incidents were entirely preventable,” said CSB Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso. “Basic security measures and warning signs – as well as more safely designed storage tanks – will essentially prevent kids from being killed in tank explosions at these sites.”
The CSB issued recommendations to these agencies:
Environmental Protection Agency. EPA should publish a safety alert for exploration and production facility owners and operators, advising them of their general duty clause responsibilities for accident prevention under the Clean Air Act. The alert should include warnings about unmanned facilities, recommendations for safer storage tank design, recommendations for hazard signs and placards, and information about critical security measures.
Mississippi Oil and Gas Board. State oil and gas regulations should be amended to require the use of inherently safer tank design features such as flame arrestors, pressure vacuum vents, floating roofs, vapor recovery systems or an equivalent alternative, to prevent the ignition of a flammable atmosphere inside the tank.
Oklahoma Corporation Commission, Texas Railroad Commission. State oil and gas regulations should be amended to protect storage tanks from public access by requiring sufficient security measures, such as full fencing with a locked gate, hatch locks on tank manways, and barriers securely attached to tank external ladders and stairways. Hazards signs and inherently safer tank designs should also be required.
American Petroleum Institute. API should create or amend standards to warn of the risks posed by storage tanks at unmanned facilities, recommend safer tank designs, and require security measures at least as protective as API 2610 (Design, Construction, Operation, Maintenance, and Inspection of Terminal & Tank Facilities) to prevent non-employee access to tanks.
The institute should also require hazard signs and recommend that new or revised mineral leasing agreements include similar security and signage requirements.
National Fire Protection Association. The group should amend NFPA 30, “Storage of Liquids in Tanks—Requirements for all Storage Tanks” to recast “isolated” locations as “normally unoccupied,” to remove the words “where necessary” from security language, and to include references to a “relevant security standard that offers specifications on fencing, locks and other site security measures.”
Gaps in the System
“The goal of this investigative study is to issue recommendations that will effectively address the current gaps that exist at the state and federal level,” said Moure-Eraso.
“As I have seen firsthand, these sites can be dangerous to the people who live and work in these communities and should be properly designed and protected.”
Earlier this year, the Safety Board also released the safety video “No Place to Hang Out: The Danger of Oil Well Sites,” aimed at educating young people about the hazards associated with oil storage tanks.
“As the demand for domestic energy resources continues to grow and the number of active extraction and production sites continues to rise steadily,” said Moure-Eraso, “it is important to ensure that these sites have the appropriate safeguards to save young people’s lives.”