Investigators: Better security needed at oil storage tanks to stop deaths

Dozens of teenagers and children have been killed in explosions at oil and gas storage tanks over the past three decades, according to federal investigators who today are urging companies to better secure the sites.

The Chemical Safety Board’s examination focuses on three recent lethal explosions, including the death of a 24-year-old woman and injury of a 25-year-old man after an oil tank in New London, Texas exploded when they lit a cigarette while on top of it.

But in a report released today, the independent agency says the problem goes back for decades and demands immediate solutions. The CSB cites 23 similar instances — most involving partying teenagers or curious kids — at oil and gas storage sites from 1983 to 2010. All of the incidents involved victims under 25 and roughly a third of them — 27 percent — were in Texas, though none were in Houston.

Many oil and gas storage tanks are in remote areas — unfenced, unsupervised and without any warning signs — “a tempting venue for young people looking for a place to gather and socialize,” the CSB found.

It can be a devastating and lethal combination when young people hanging out at the sites light up cigarettes.

After probing the 2010 New London, Texas, explosion and two others in Carnes, Miss., and Weleetka, Okla., the CSB concluded all three could have been prevented with better warning signs, securing hatches on the tanks or the use of safer tank designs at the facilities.

Although Houston and some other large cities put constraints on the location of the facilities within city limits, that is not the case nationwide, where more than 800,000 oil and natural gas producing facilities dot the landscape.

“The growing number of oil and gas facilities nationally, their accessibility to members of the public and the lack of awareness among the public about the hazards posed by the tanks suggest a potential for similar incidents,” the CSB concluded.

The agency today is urging oil and gas companies to take swift steps to prevent more accidents, including adopting inherently safer tank design features that are already used in the downstream, refining sector. For instance, the CSB says, vents fitted with pressure-vacuum devices, flame arrestors, vapor recovery systems and floating roofs would go a long way to making the tanks — and the area around them — safer.

“There are more modern storage tank designs that make it much more difficult to accidentally ignite the flammable vapor inside,” said Rafael Moure-Eraso, the CSB chairman. “When the vapor ignites, tanks can explode — killing or injuring any people in the vicinity.”

Moure-Eraso noted that the storage tank designs recommended by the CSB are already utilized at oil refinieres and other downstream facilities because “they are cost effective and they work.”

The CSB also points to some relatively inexpensive and easy changes that could pay off, including hatch locks to prevent access to flammable hydrocarbons inside storage tanks, fencing around the tanks and warning signs.

A “patchwork of” federal, state and local laws don’t go far enough, said Vidisha Parasram, who led a CSB task force that investigated the issue.

“There is a lack of consistent state or municipally mandated regulations for perimeter fencing, locks, and signage,” Parasram said at a news conference to discuss the report this morning. “Public safety is rarely considered in municipal or state rules for constructing or maintaining tanks on oil and gas well sites, even for new construction.”

“These sites are dangerous and the people who live and work in these communities should be properly protected,” Parasram added. “Immediate action to (address shortcomings) will prevent future accidents and save lives.”

Although the American Petroleum Institute currently recommends specific security measures for storage tanks holding refined petroleum products, the group does not have similar standards for storage tanks at upstream exploration and production sites. The exploration and production storage tanks also are exempt from security requirements in the Clean Water Act and risk-management mandates in the Clean Air Act.

The CSB is urging the API to adopt new standards for upstream sites encouraging the use of safer tank designs meant to trim the chances of explosions. The agency also says API should bolster its existing standards by insisting on locked fences, hatch locks on tank manways and barriers preventing unauthorized access to external ladders and stairways at the sites.

API Spokesman Reid Porter said the group was still studying the CSB’s report. “We look forward to reviewing this report and its recommendations, and continuing to improve safe operations,” he said.

The CSB also wants state regulators in Texas to beef up oil and gas regulations with new security requirements. The agency urged the Texas Railroad Commission to mandate companies use locked fences, hatch locks, barriers on ladders and hazard signs near the facilities. The commission also should require the use of safer tank designs, the CSB said.

The Texas Railroad Commission did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In the April 26, 2010 New London, Texas incident, an exploding tank flew 48 feet away from its original location after one of the two victims lit a cigarette while climbing the stairway of the catwalk at the site. Located at the end of an isolated road in the middle of a clearing surrounded by woods, the oil and gas site was leased by MC Production.

The site, which was in operation for at least 80 years, had three interconnected 1,000-barrel capacity tanks at the time of the accident. The tank that actually exploded had not stored any hydrocarbons for at least one and a half years before the incident. A graffiti-covered warning sign at the site warned against smoking, matches or open lights.

A separate oil tank explosion in Carnes, Miss., on Halloween 2009 killed two teenagers, Devon Byrd and Wade White, who were at a Delphi Oil production site about 150 feet away from one of their homes. The force of the explosion sent the upper part of a tank flying 225 feet away and propelled the bottom piece about 60 feet in the opposite direction. The resulting fire lasted four hours and sent flames 200 feet high.

Both teenagers were killed instantly, according to the CSB report, and there was no evidence of what caused the flammable hydrocarbons to ignite.

The Carnes, Miss., explosion has inspired memorials and state lawmakers to push for tougher regulations on oil and gas storage facilities — but they have had limited success.

Mississippi State Senator Billy Hudson says oil and gas leaders in the state have resisted his push for fencing around the facilities. But he insists that it should be a no-brainer.

“You fence a swimming pool to make sure children don’t drown,” Hudson said. And electric utilities wrap power stations in high fencing, he added.

When it comes to tanks holding flammable oil and gas, Hudson said, “you would think they would want a fence.”