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Report: Texas Railroad Commission is failing to regulate deadly H2S 'sour' gas

Earthworks
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A report from Earthworks said the Texas Railroad Commission is allowing oil producers to violate safety laws that protect workers and the public from hydrogen sulfide gas.

In West Texas oil fields, a rotten egg smelling gas is commonly released from the oil wells. It’s hydrogen sulfide and it’s as lethal as it is smelly. The Texas Railroad’s Commission is supposed to license these “sour wells” but a new report says Texas is failing to adequately regulate these sites and the toxic emissions that can have deadly consequences.

In October 2019, Jacob and Natalee Dean died of hydrogen sulfide poisoning at an Aghorn oilfield pump house near Odessa.

“The gentleman had gotten a call to go out and check this pump apparently when he opened the door or something to that effect, he was overcome by h2s gas,” said Ector County Sheriff Mike Giffis.

After several hours, his wife worried he was taking too long. She loaded their two kids in the car and drove to the pump house to search for him. When she went into the pump house, she also succumbed to the poison gas. The children remained in the car and survived.

“It’s just an awful, awful situation. Two little kids have lost their parents,” said Griffis.

But this was more than a terrible accident. According to an investigation by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, this tragic loss of life was unnecessary and could have been avoided. Six hydrogen sulfide gas safety measures were ignored or not in place.

Chemical Safety Board Chairperson and CEO Katherine Lemos said the oil producers in the Permian Basin should take hydrogen sulfide gas safety seriously.

“Hydrocarbons from the Permian Basin in particular are known to contain high concentrations of hydrogen sulfide that are immediately dangerous to life or health,” Lemos said.

The Chemical Safety Board found that Aghorn Operations did not require the wearing of H2S monitors, the H2S warming beacon malfunctioned, there was no written training process for H2S leaks, and the building wasn’t properly ventilated.

“We urge companies operating oil and gas facilities to understand the findings from this investigation and implement appropriate safeguards and training,” Lemos said.

The CSB also made recommendations to the Railroad Commission of Texas, addressing the requirements for protecting workers from hazardous air contaminants and from hazardous energy. However, according to a newly released report, the Railroad Commission is failing to enforce licensing requirements for H2S producing oil facilities and overly relies on industry self-reporting.

“The Railroad Commission is not following up and making sure that these operators get the permits they need, and they are allowing the industry to basically tell on themselves. So that would be like, if you were driving and you were speeding, and you got home and called the DPS and said, 'Hey, I was, and you need to come give me a ticket,'” said Sharron Wilson, a field advocate with Earthworks.

Earthworks released the report that documents the dangers of hydrogen sulfide gas in Texas and how the Railroad Commission of Texas is failing to enforce H2S safety laws.

“The Railroad Commission does not keep up with this thing. We have to stop depending on the oil and gas industry to be a good actor, they have shown us over and over that they will not be a good actor. So having all voluntarily submitted information is just, you know, it's never worked and it's not, it's clear. It's not going to work,” said Wilson.

The report, titled “Fatal Vapors: How Texas oil and gas regulators cause avoidable deaths,” finds that 51% of poison gas wells in RRC District 8 — which encompasses most of the Permian Basin — do not have required permits intended to prevent harm from sour gas released by oil and gas production.

There is a long history in Texas of fatal accidents with hydrogen sulfide gas. The most well know might be the Denver City Tragedy. On Feb. 2 1975, an oil field pipe ruptured and H2S gas leaked — killing nine people. A granite monument stands at the intersection of Texas 214 and Texas 83 in memorial but the report’s author Jack McDonald said a better memorial might be doing more to prevent H2S deaths, particularly when it comes to worker training.

“Railroad Commission regulation says that if they are going to be exposed to it, they should be trained on how to handle it, how to act safely around it. However, in practice, our report shows that potentially some operators are not receiving that training. Moreover, our report has documented numerous instances where OSHA has found that operators were instructing workers to act in unsafe ways and therefore increasing their risk of hydrogen sulfide exposure,” said McDonald.

McDonald said it is possible to have a robust and profitable petroleum industry in Texas and follow the law when it comes to H2S gas.

“So there really should not be any incremental damage to these in order to follow the law. But they don't follow the law anyways seemingly because they don't want to deal with those regulations. Things like putting signs at their well, telling the public that the well produces dangerous chemicals, something like that is clearly not onerous. And yet operators don't follow the law,” he said.

In a written statement the Railroad Commission responded:

“The Railroad Commission has a strong program of compliance inspections of all oil and gas wells. In addition to compliance inspections, The Railroad Commission inspectors are deployed to wells to investigate issues, including all complaints. Violations are inspected until addressed and compliance has been achieved.”

Sue Franklin disagrees that the Railroad Commission is forcing well operations to comply with the law. She and her husband lived near Verhalen, which is between Pecos and Balmorhea. In recent years there’s been a boon of oil drilling close to their home, including one site called the Red Unit.

“And it was marked with a big H2S sign 'Poison gas: keep out blah blah blah,' and we were assured that we would never get any smell or anything at our house but there were many nights that I woke up just gagging with gas in the house,” Franklin said.

Franklin began to have chronic breathing problems caused by the H2S gas and she was forced to move. The experience has soured her on the Texas oil industry.

“They need to shut it all down," she said.

That’s unlikely to happen. The report calls for the Railroad Commission to overhaul regulating H2S gas wells in the state — including tracking which operators need regulation — and to address health threats posed by sour gas.

Copyright 2022 Texas Public Radio. To see more, visit Texas Public Radio.

David Martin Davies is a veteran journalist with more than 30 years of experience covering Texas, the border and Mexico.