CSB Report: Oil, Gas Production Sites Pose Hazards to Public

The report identified regulatory gaps at the federal and state levels and called on the EPA and state regulatory bodies to improve current safety and security measures at exploration and production sites.

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) released a new study of explosions at oil and gas production sites across the U.S., identifying 26 incidents since 1983 that killed 44 members of the public and injured 25 others under the age of 25. The agency is calling for new public protection measures at the sites.

The report examined in detail three explosions that occurred at oil and gas production facilities in Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Texas, that killed and injured members of the public between October 2009 and April 2010.

The CSB report found that children and young adults frequently socialize at oil sites in rural areas, unaware of the explosion hazards from storage tanks that contain flammable hydrocarbons like crude oil and natural gas condensate. The unintentional introduction of an ignition source (such as a match, lighter, 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 report identified regulatory gaps at the federal and state levels and called on the EPA and state regulatory bodies to improve current safety and security measures at exploration and production sites such as warning signs, full fencing, locked gates, locks on tank hatches, and other physical barriers. The report also called on state regulators in Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Texas to require safer, modern tank designs that reduce the likelihood of an internal tank explosion if an ignition source is inadvertently introduced nearby.

“Oil and gas storage sites are part of the landscape in many rural American communities; hundreds of thousands of similar sites are located across the country,” said Vidisha Parasram, CSB lead investigator. “It was a concern to discover that issues related to public safety are rarely considered prior to placement and design of these sites. In many cases sites can be as close as 150 to 300 feet from existing buildings such as residences, schools, and churches, and still lack any meaningful warnings or barriers to prevent public access.”

Among the six formal safety recommendations in the report, the Board urged that state regulators require the use of inherently safety tank design features such as flame arrestors, pressure-vacuum vents, floating roofs, and vapor recovery systems. The safety measures, similar to those already in use in refineries and other downstream storage tanks, reduce the emissions of flammable vapor from the tanks or otherwise prevent an external flame from igniting vapor inside tanks.

“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 CSB Chairman Rafael 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.”

CSB’s investigation also examined industry codes and standards, such as those from the American Petroleum Institute (API) and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). The final report recommends that both organizations adequately address the hazards that these sites present to members of the public through amendments to their existing codes or creation of additional guidance.

As a result of the investigation’s findings CSB recommended that API warn of the explosion hazards presented by exploration and production sites, including requirements for security measures such as fencing gates and signs, recommendations for inherently safer storage tank design, and acknowledgment of the public safety issue presented by these sites.

CSB also recommended that NFPA amend NFPA 30 “Storage of Liquids in Tanks—Requirements for all Storage Tanks” to adequately describe unmanned extraction and production sites and include information in a relevant security standard that offers specifications on fencing and locks.

“As the demand for domestic energy resources continues to grow and the number of active extraction and production sites continues to rise steadily, it is important to ensure that these sites have the appropriate safeguards to save young people’s lives,” said Moure-Eraso.

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