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Oil and gas accidents -- who is protecting workers from 40-hour shifts?

Amy Mall

Posted July 9, 2013

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Photo added on July 10

Earlier this year, a few NRDC colleages and I took a field trip to visit some fracking communities in West Virginia. We visit communities around the country periodically to see the affects of fracking first hand. One of the sites we viewed, by standing outside the fence line on a neighbor's property, exploded over the weekend. Apparently, the fracking flowback (the used fracking fluid that has come out of the well during fracking) being injected into holding tanks somehow exploded, perhaps due to a pump malfunction. The explosion is still being investigated.

Reports vary about the number of injured but I've read that five workers had to be evacuated by air to a burn center and three or four others were reported to be treated locally. The wife of one of the burned workers reported that he had not been home from work in more than 40 hours. She also referred to intimidating work environments for workers who have concerns about safety issues: " don't ask questions," she said. "Not if you want your job."

Three volunteer fire departments were on the site starting around 4:00 a.m. Do volunteer fire departments really have the resources needed to fight these large industrial fires? Below is a photo of the wellpad where the explosion took place (taken in January). You can see how close it is to people's homes:

WV wellpad that exploded.jpg

Photo credit: Rocky Kistner/NRDC

And is anyone protecting the workers? OSHA can't inspect every site, and even when OSHA is on the case, the fines are much too low. Just today an article reported OSHA proposed fines in Colorado for safety violations--the fines were only $10,200 and $7,854 for violations like not telling a worker he was dealing with hazardous chemicals--something that could have led to serious injury or even death.

In 2011, a West Virginia worker was killed and the fine was $4,900. That's it. According to a very disturbing EnergyWire report, his employer (a different company than the one mentioned above) cut corners to save money by foregoing important pallets needed to stabilize the work site, by allowing someone without proper training to operate equipment, and by trying to speed up work. 

EnergyWire reported that oil and gas sites are among the most dangerous workplaces in the country.

The company that owns the well where the tanks exploded the other day has been cited for 17 violations of state code in the past three years. Last year, a well fire injured three workers. Other citations have been for contaminating streams and other environmental violations.

The federal and state governments need to crack down on companies that are violating the law and that are placing workers in harm's way. Without stiff enforcement and truly meaningful penalties, including shutting down serious violators and fines high enough to incentivize change in business practice, the public will never have faith in the ability or commitment of regulators to protect human health and the environment, or any confidence that companies will clean up their act.

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Michael BerndtsonJul 9 2013 02:18 PM

Moving west from West Virginia, Ohio's Republican governor Kasich can't get a severance tax passed by state legislators. This tax would be on oil and wet gas (not nat. gas) from Utica wells and pay for things like infrastructure, health and safety mentioned in the post. Kasich even upped the ante with 75 percent of the tax going to cuts in state income tax. And it still got tabled. We'll see if Ohio picks it up in the fall after the summer break.

BTW, BP is mobilizing efforts for 2,000 horizontal wells in Trumbull County (Ohio) alone. These are pretty deep Utica wells with plans for oil and natural gas liquids.

m. beramJul 9 2013 02:19 PM

I live in a fracking community in West Virginia.

Accidents related to Marcellus shale extraction are increasing in our region. We all take our lives in our hands when we drive our narrow country roads competing for space with the hugh trucks that are delivering water, stone, drilling rigs and the assorted materials needed for the drilling process.

My heart goes out to workers that have been injured and to the innocent people that have been killed as a result of these activities.

Antero owns the wells on the site where the explosions occurred. Antero keeps stating it was “contract” workers that were involved. Yes, they may be contract workers…It appears that the majority of the workers on the well pads in our area are “contract” workers. Antero hires the contractors and Antero needs to be held accountable for safety protocol that is in place.

My experience with the industry is that “SAFETY” standards are set from above. If Antero management is not setting the scale for safety, then who is?? Are there natural gas detectors on the sites? If so, it may have prevented the injuries that resulted from the explosion.

Accidents that occur at the drilling locations put our emergency responders, local residents & the workers at risk. Many of these locations are in remote areas and not close to medical services.

How many more people will be hurt or killed before our elected officials respond and increase regulations to protect people living in “fracking hell”?

The fines that are issued are a joke.

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