Federal investigators urge Texas to tighten safety rules

The Chemical Safety Board has repeated its call for the Texas Railroad Commission to tighten safety precautions at oil and gas production sites across the state after an explosion in East Texas seriously injured two people last week.

“The CSB is deeply concerned about accidents at oil and gas production sites across the country,” board Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso said in a statement issued after a man and a woman, both 24, were hospitalized following an explosion and fire at a production facility in Van Zandt County Tuesday.

“It is the CSB’s view that states should take proper precautions to ensure that oil and gas production sites are secured properly, with fencing, gates and warning signs to prevent access by teenagers and young adults who are attracted to the sites as secluded places at which to socialize.”

The board has investigated several other incidents within the past few years, including at least three involving fatalities, and reported that children and young adults frequently gather at oil sites in rural areas, unaware of the explosion hazards from storage tanks and the risk that an ignition source — a match, cigarette, or cigarette lighter — can trigger an explosion and launch the tank into the air.

A 2010 accident in New London, in East Texas, involved a 25-year-old man and a 24-year-old woman on top of an oil tank when the tank exploded. The woman was killed and the man seriously injured, according to the Chemical Safety Board.

The board last year called on the Railroad Commission, which oversees oil and gas operations in Texas, to amend state regulations to require stricter security measures.

So far, it has not.

But Moure-Eraso said he was again asking the commission to take action after last week’s accident.

Ramona Nye, a spokeswoman for the Railroad Commission, said Monday the commission had not not received an updated request for action from the Chemical Safety Board after the latest accident.

She released a response from the commission, dated April 12, 2012, regarding its earlier recommendations. In that letter, Leslie Savage, chief geologist in the commission’s oil and gas division, says the board’s report “in our opinion, contains numerous errors and omissions relating to conditions at the incident sites, regulatory requirements, and educational efforts of the producing states and others.”

The department did commit to stepping up educational efforts. But Savage also noted that federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations already in place should have provided protection for the public.

“However, rather than recommending that OSHA increase its compliance inspections, CSB is recommending that the RRC amend its rules to adopt and enforce these federal regulations,” she wrote, suggesting that the duplication of effort could lead to confusion.

The Van Zandt County Fire Marshall told the Tyler Morning Telegraph that both of the people who were injured were smoking.

The Chemical Safety Board said 26 similar incidents were reported between 1983 and 2010, resulting in 44 fatalities and 25 injuries.