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Working in oil fields can be a lucrative career, but those jobs can come at a tragic price. The most dangerous place to work in America might be Bakken Oil Field (North Dakota), which has caused at least 74 deaths since the oil boom started there in 2006. Weak oversight and a lack of accountability have resulted in significant numbers of oil field accidents.

Oil field accidents claim the lives of more than 100 workers in the United States every year and seriously injure hundreds of others. No matter what side of the case you are on, an expert witness familiar with oil field accidents can help determine what really happened.


Deepwater Horizon

April 20, 2010

Killed: 11

Injured: 17

Cause: Well integrity failure due to poor cement work,

Result: BP pled guilty to 11 counts of manslaughter, 2 misdemeanors, and a felony count of lying to Congress. BP has also paid $54 billion in penalties, lawsuits, and cleanup costs.

The Deepwater Horizon spent the first part of 2010 drilling the Macondo Well, also known as the “well from Hell,” 40 miles from the Louisiana coast. When it was time for the crew to move on to greener pastures, they needed to cap the well with cement. The well was under 5,000 feet of ocean water and delved 18,000 feet under the sea floor.

The Halliburton/BP crew felt their cementing procedure had gone so swimmingly there was no need to pay the $128,000 fee to have the work inspected. That would save BP time and money!

As it turns out, the cement job was not enough to seal the well, and it initiated a disaster of epic proportions. The blowout created a fireball that could be seen onshore (40 miles away), followed by an inextinguishable fire that sank the massive ship. Of those on board the Deepwater Horizon, 115 were evacuated. The Coast Guard searched the area extensively but was unable to find the 11 missing crewmen. It’s likely that they didn’t escape the sudden explosion.

In addition to the deadly oil rig explosion, the incident created the largest environmental disaster in U.S. history. Subsequent forensic investigation showed that the calamity could have been prevented. In addition to the shoddy cement work, seven other failures combined to cause the accident.

Denver City, TX H2S Tragedy

February 2, 1975

Killed: 9

Injured: 2

Cause: Hydrogen sulfide gas leaking from a well

Result: Atlantic Richfield (ARCO) was assessed a $1,125 fine.

In the early hours of a Sunday morning, police dispatch received a call from a panicked woman, Glenda Patton, who told them her family was being killed by a gas leak. By the time the cavalry arrived, the Patton family was already dead.

The Pattons had desperately tried to flee through the rain to safety, still wearing their pajamas. They had left quickly, knocking furniture over in the process. Five family members were found in one car, two in a truck, and another under the truck. Another vehicle was found with the body of a well runner, who had been sent to investigate the leaking gas but succumbed to the lethal cloud.

The kill zone included the many animals on the Patton’s small farm; the bodies of chickens, rabbits, birds, dogs, cats, and a donkey were littered around the house.

Their neighbors, the Merrills, lived only 50 yards away. They fled the scene in terror as well, barely making it out as Tom Merrill lost consciousness behind the wheel. Mrs. Merrill pushed her husband’s foot to the accelerator, desperate to get him and their two children out of the danger zone. The Merrills made it to the hospital and survived; their pets did not. Hydrogen sulfide leaks are extremely dangerous. What makes this case different is that ARCO was intentionally pumping waste gases into the ground to improve the yield. These types of accidents usually affect oil company employees, but in this case, almost none of the victims worked for ARCO; their only connection was that they lived near the experimental injection operation.

Tosco Avon Refinery Petroleum Naphtha Fire

February 23, 1999

Killed: 4

Injured: 1

Cause: Flammable naptha ignited during the repair of a leaky pipe.

Result: Tosco fined $400,000.

On February 23, 1999, workers at the Avon petroleum refinery in Martinez, California, were attempting to replace a leaky pipe attached to a 150-foot tower. Through this unit flowed a highly pressurized petroleum product called naphtha. For nearly two weeks prior to the accident, crews had been attempting to isolate and drain the pipe, but corroded shutoff valves made their efforts ineffective.

Without shutting down the processing unit, workers cut out the leaky pipe with a pneumatic saw. Unfortunately, the pipe wasn’t drained completely, and the highly flammable contents erupted onto the hot machinery nearby. The naphtha ignited in an enormous fireball that killed four workers. A fifth worker was seriously injured, though he managed to preserve his life by jumping from the tower and falling 100 feet to the ground.

Two years prior to this incident, the same refinery suffered an explosion that killed one worker and injured 46 more. That accident was also caused by a deficiency in maintenance and management. After the 1999 incident, Tosco ultimately negotiated a settlement for five OSHA violations and paid approximately $400,000 in fines.

Just as this agreement was reached, another Tosco refinery in California burst into flame. Tosco had a reputation for unsafe practices, but repeated accidents, citations, and fines failed to make a dent in the profits. The quarter that this accident occurred was the most profitable one on record. Tosco soon sold the Avon plant for $800 million, while the rest of the company was acquired in a $7 billion deal with Phillips Petroleum.

Texas City Refinery Explosion

March 23, 2005

Killed: 15

Injured: 180

Cause: A flammable vapor cloud formed and was ignited, causing a series of explosions.

Result: $21 million fine from OSHA, $50 million fine from federal government, and a further $50.6 million fine for failing to correct safety hazards cited in OSHA’s first ruling.

The Texas City Refinery explosion demonstrates why transition can be the riskiest time for oil fields. Texas City was one of the largest refineries in the country and had just finished a nine-week turnaround that involved tens of thousands of scheduled maintenance procedures.

Even as the safety inspectors celebrated an accident-free turnaround with a team lunch, workers were restarting equipment that had been offline for weeks. One such system was an “ISOM” unit, responsible for boosting octane levels in gasoline, and it had built up an outstanding amount of pressure during the turnaround.

The unit had its own blowdown drum, designed to store excess fuel in just such an event. However, its capacity was greatly exceeded, and restarting the unit promptly resulted in a geyser of fuel erupting from the top of the ISOM tower. A cloud of flammable vapors formed near the base of the stack. Somewhere in that cloud of fumes, it’s believed, the spark of a running truck engine ignited the resulting firestorm.

The first ignition would have consumed all the oxygen in the immediate vicinity, creating a giant vacuum. That vacuum then drew in air (delivering fresh oxygen), which exploded in a shock-wave inferno. The super-compressed wall of air rocketed outward at 1000 feet per second, generating so much blunt force that it killed 11 contractors on the site and did tremendous damage to the refinery and the surrounding area. Homes a mile away had their windows blown in. The initial blast was followed by a giant fireball and several more explosions.

Forensic investigators found a number of critical failures. The blowdown drums were inadequate and significantly outdated, alarms and level sensors in the ISOM unit were inoperative, and (despite the turnaround) critical safety systems were lacking in maintenance. A top-down emphasis on cost cutting and production had created a culture of shortcuts. The final report cited more than 300 safety violations and resulted in an initial $21 million fine.

Fort Worth Forensic Engineer

Marc Meadows