Oklahoma Oil Site Where Explosion Killed a Man Was Unsecured

OKLAHOMA CITY, Oklahoma, April 23, 2010 (ENS) – The fiery explosion that took the life of a 21-year-old man in Weeletka, Oklahoma on April 14 occurred at an unattended oil and gas production site that was unsecured and likely lacked fire or explosion warning signs, federal investigators said today.

The incident follows a familiar pattern, according to the Chemical Safety Board investigators.

A Chemical Safety Board analysis released April 13, the day before the Weeletka incident, showed that 24 similar explosions and fires occurred at oil and gas production sites between 1983 and 2009. Those accidents resulted in 42 deaths of teenagers and young adults under the age of 25 and numerous injuries to others. In most cases, the explosions were ignited by a cigarette, match, or lighter.

The CSB says there are no specific federal standards or industry guidance for security or public protection measures at oil and gas production sites. Certain states including Ohio and Colorado require fencing and other public safety measures at sites in urban areas. Ohio requires tank hatches to be sealed and locked at unattended oil sites.

Counting the accident on April 14, the CSB has identified seven oil site explosions and fires in Oklahoma since 1990 that killed or injured members of the public, the highest total for any state. Four of these accidents caused multiple fatalities.

Oil tanks involved in the Weeletka incident (Photo courtesy CSB)

At Weeletka, after a four-day investigation the Chemical Safety Board team determined that the accident occurred at 9:00 pm, while six individuals aged 18 to 32 were socializing at the rural site on private land, which was normally unstaffed.

The site had four petroleum storage tanks and two brine storage tanks and was operated by two production firms, Three MG Family Inc. and Enterprise Energy, who leased the mineral rights. A third company, ScissorTail Energy, operated a gas metering and collection system connected to the production equipment.

The survivors who witnessed the explosion said that they were drawn to the site when they saw the open gate while driving along a public road. They said that oil sites were a common gathering place for local residents and that they were largely unfamiliar with the hazards.

The explosion happened as the 21-year-old victim was peering into the hatch on top of a tank containing some 160 barrels of light crude oil. The resulting explosion and fire engulfed him and caused a second explosion in a connected tank.

The victim suffered third-degree burns over 85 percent of his body. He was able to describe the accident to emergency response and ambulance personnel, but died the following morning at a Tulsa burn unit. Another individual suffered second-degree burns. The fire burned for more than three hours.

“The catwalk leading to the top of the tank was unsecured and readily accessible,” said CSB Investigator Vidisha Parasram. “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.”

Parasram said the CSB would continue to study whether any signage could have been destroyed in the fire, but that even the undamaged portions of the facility and the entrance gates had no posted warnings. Witnesses said they saw no signs on the night of the accident or during previous visits to the site.

The site entrance was protected only by an unmarked gate which multiple witnesses described as being wide open on the night of April 14, and generally open and unlocked at other times.

“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 CSB regional office in Denver.

“Oil and gas sites that lack security measures and warning signs are an accident waiting to happen,” Holstrom said.

State officials told the CSB investigators that Oklahoma has about 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.

The deadly blast at Weeletka occurred just one day after the release of a new CSB safety video at a public meeting in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. The video, “No Place to Hang Out,” is aimed at educating young people about the hazards of socializing at oil sites, a common practice in rural areas.

The video tells the story of the tragic deaths of Wade White, 18, and Devon Byrd, 16, killed October 31, 2009, when an oil tank suddenly exploded while the two were hanging out at the site in the woods near their rural Mississippi hometown of Carnes.

CSB Board Member William Wark said, “The CSB is 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.”

Wark said the CSB team received outstanding cooperation from local law enforcement and fire officials during the investigation.

The day before the explosion in Weleetka, the CSB Board issued a statement “urging oil and gas production companies to ensure that they provide adequate security and warning signage around sites that have tank fire or explosion hazards; and further urging state legislatures, local governments, and regulators to review rules governing oil and gas tank sites to ensure they require adequate barriers, security measures, and warning signs.”

Wark said a CSB task group will be working over the next several months to develop additional specific safety recommendations, incorporating the findings from the recent accidents in Mississippi and Oklahoma.

The Chemical Safety Board is an independent federal agency charged with investigating serious chemical accidents. The agency’s board members are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate.

CSB investigations look into all aspects of chemical accidents, including physical causes such as equipment failure as well as inadequacies in regulations, industry standards, and safety management systems.

The Board does not issue citations or fines but does make safety recommendations to plants, industry organizations, labor groups, and regulatory agencies.

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