Workers are dying in U.S. oilfields and the industry is not taking steps to prevent these deaths.
Manual gauging and sampling aka "thieving" is when workers open tank hatches to determine liquid levels in the tanks and to sample fluids. When the hatches are opened, methane and volatile organic compounds blast out. Workers die. Some die immediately and some, like Jeff Springman, suffer horribly and die slowly.
The American Petroleum Institute “recommends” an alternative practice that would keep workers and nearby neighbors safe. The industry rarely follows any recommendation and only follows mandates if there are stiff penalties.
Jeff reached out to me in April for help telling his story. He was fatally injured when performing manual gauging on tanks at a Diamondback Energy site in the Texas Permian Basin. When he opened the tank hatch, it flew out of his hand from the force of the gas blasting out. Jeff remembers nothing else because he was knocked unconscious and nearly fell of the catwalk. He is only alive today because his trainee, who was standing several feet away, dragged his body out of the plume. Jeff did not know about the NIOSH-OSHA Hazard alert about the dangers of manual gauging until I sent it to him.
We’ve become friends, but our phone conversations and texts are infrequent these days because he is slowing and miserably dying. Multiple organs are failing due to the “hydrocarbon poisoning” stated on his medical records.
A few months before his injury, Jeff went through medical testing to get a million-dollar life insurance policy. He had no medical issues at that time.
I just spoke with Jeff and I’m angry and sad. He has a seven-year-old daughter who jokingly calls him zombie. Jeff tries to prepare her but a seven-year-old doesn’t understand the finality of death.
Jeff knows it’s too late for him but he wants to help other workers avoid his fate. The Guardian published Jeff’s story in July. It’s well done and includes important information but it leaves out the climate aspects. Today another story was published in The Cool Down.
I first saw manual gauging and sampling while standing in the parking lot of Northridge High School in Greeney, Colorado just a few months after I became a certified optical gas imaging thermographer in 2014.
In this video you see the black mushroom cloud of hydrocarbon gases coming from the tanks after the worker opens the hatch. The cloud blows over the rooftops of the nearby homes exposing those families. Enlarge the video and watch closely at 33 seconds and you can see the worker walking on the catwalk at the top of the tanks. We confirmed with binoculars that he was not wearing any breathing protection.
Synergy Chief Operating Officer Craig Rasmuson in the Greeley Tribune sought to comfort the PTA moms who saw the video.
“Long story short, that’s what she saw and that’s what she shot,” Rasmuson said in a phone interview Wednesday. “That happens. That’s part of the industry. For that 20-30 minutes it takes to load a truck, the hatch is open.”
Greeley Tribune, October 29, 2014
Since that day, I’ve seen this practice dozens of times and it typically takes 40 minutes for one tank. I’ve talked to workers who’s employer convinced them that hydrocarbon gases aren’t dangerous. Since that day, at least a dozen more workers have died. And since that day, I have endlessly submitted warnings: through regulator comment processes, at federal and local hearings and to environmental non-profit organizations. What is it about workers needlessly dying that no one seems to understand? These deaths are preventable! Jeff’s imminent death was preventable!
Manual gauging and sampling harms neighbors and the climate
If manual gauging can kill a grown man onsite, imagine what it could do to a toddler playing a few hundred feet away when a mushroom cloud of pollution blasts out of the tanks and travels into nearby backyards and communities.
Mother’s Heart Preschool in Arlington, Texas is only a few hundred feet from a Total Energy gas well. Owner, Wanda Vincent described being overcome by fumes when a worker was performing manual gauging at the site.
During Tuesday night’s council meeting, Wanda Vincent, who owns Mother’s Heart, described two incidents in December in which she said she and others at the day care were overwhelmed and sickened by fumes that she believes came from the site. Vincent’s daughter Mariah, who teaches at the day care, said she heard a screeching sound and then smelled a strong odor and felt nauseous after going outside to investigate.
“We love and care for our children, and it would break my heart if what I felt happened to any of my children,” Mariah Vincent said. “I call them my babies, and we do not want our children to get sick form this drill site.”
“What we experienced is proof that there is a problem,” Wanda Vincent said. “Children playing and breathing this in is a major problem.”
Texas day care gets reprieve after drilling plan is rejected
I’ve recorded thousands of optical gas imaging videos showing egregious emissions from all parts of the upstream and midstream oilfield equipment. I send the video as evidence with a complaint to regulators. Most often I make complaints on the same sights with ongoing emissions. Most often nothing changes. Methane is over 80 times more powerful than carbon dioxide at warming our climate so this should be a big deal.
I find tank hatches left open with gas blasting out all the time. The hatches can’t be that hard to close. I asked Jeff: “What the heck man, why can’t you guys close the hatches when you’re through.” He said they leave them open to protect the next guy so he won’t get injured. The complaints I’ve made over and over and over about the open hatches, make no change.
One of the technology solutions the industry promotes to stop methane emissions is vapor recovery systems. They are designed to capture the pressure release emissions from tanks. When workers open the hatches--sometimes several times a day--and when they leave the hatches open to protect other workers, that means the vapor recovery systems are merely window dressing. The joke's on us.
All these deaths and the suffering are preventable. Exposures to neighbors and harm done to the climate is preventable. The industry chooses to let workers die and to harm neighbors and the climate.
Note on methane capture technology: I document this technology failing all the time. The technology is not reliable for too many reasons to go into here. I contract with Tim Doty who was a TCEQ regulator for 29 years and a Level III thermographer. Now he contracts with Teledyne FLIR certifying new thermographers for government and industry. He estimates that we find 75-80% of the vapor recovery units failing. I’ve spent over 20 years observing oil and gas operations, 10 of those years as a certified thermographer. The industry cannot, at this time, solve the methane problem. The more oil and gas expands, the higher methane levels will spike.