When thinking about oil and gas industry accidents most think about rig explosions and oil leaks. Injury to workers and environmental damage are assumed to be the most obvious consequence of these accidents. However, certain oil and gas industry issues have the potential to affect many different community members.
For example, oil and gas storage sites are located in our communities across the country, with some sites located as close as 150 to 300 feet from residences, churches, schools and businesses. It is easy to overlook the storage facilities, because they are often inconspicuous. At some sites there are no warning signs, fencing, locked gates or other physical barriers to indicate the activity there or help prevent accidents.
Failure to properly maintain these storage facilities can lead to serious problems. These facilities pose a significant danger to the public, particularly to our children and young adults. A recent study released by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board identified 26 incidents since 1983 involving accidents at these oil and gas facilities. Those over two dozen incidents killed 44 members of the public and injured may others.
In some ways, the dangers posed by these locations affect rural community members, who are far more likely to live, work, and interact near these facilities. It is not uncommon in rural areas for children and young adults to socialize at oil sites unaware of the explosive hazards posed by storage tanks containing flammable hydrocarbons and crude oil and natural gas condensate.
It only takes a single incident to cause serious problems. A lighter, cigarette, or even static near one of these tanks may trigger an explosion inside the tank. Such an internal explosion can launch the tank into the air, killing or injuring people nearby in the blink of an eye.
These accidents are not uncommon.
Perhaps most common are gas pipeline explosions which when they occur, they can be incredibly devastating to the public. Perhaps none were more tragic than the year 2000 pipeline explosion in New Mexico that killed 12 family members who were camping along the Pecos River several hundred yards from the underground explosion.
The case resulted in a record wrongful death settlement for the estates of the deceased. Remarkably, the accident and the horrific scene which greeted emergency responders was so bad that several of the emergency responders suffered severe PTSD and other emotional damages for which they later also filed suit.
Those maintaining these oil and gas sites must take the known safety dangers into account. In the New Mexico case, the pipeline was had not been cleaned or inspected in 5 decades. As a result, the pipeline and the breach point were severely corroded which led to the explosion.
The good news is that with the appropriate safety and security measures these accidents are preventable. In many cases, basic security measures, such as full fencing, locked gates, and locks on tank hatches are often all it takes to avoid these types of accidents entirely. Warning signs and safely designed storage tanks also go a long way to keep unsuspecting community members away from dangerous areas. These measures will be effective in preventing many pipeline accidents.
In the New Mexico case, which involved a 30 inch interstate pipeline, these measures clearly would be insufficient since the campers were nowhere near the pipeline. In all cases, proper inspection, maintenance, and cleaning must be maintained. Common sense might suggest this goes without saying. Yet, it is remarkably common that pipelines are not properly maintained. And with the continuing growth of the natural gas market and the consequent boom in pipeline construction, only time will tell whether all these pipelines were laid properly to begin with.
The bottom line is that oil and gas storage, transmission and pipeline facilities pose a clear risk to community members. It is incumbent upon owners and operators to minimize that risk. Failure to do so can prove devastating to the public and ultimately quite costly to the owner/operators of the facilities.