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Oil worker's death renews debate on safety of extraction method

Chevron was fined $350 after an employee at a Kern County field where high-pressure steam is injected into the ground was sucked underground and boiled to death last year.

April 14, 2012|By Michael J. Mishak, Los Angeles Times

SACRAMENTO — California's largest oil company failed to warn employees of the dangers in an oil field where a worker was sucked underground and boiled to death last year, state authorities found — and then they fined the firm $350.

The small regulatory penalty, levied after a first investigation cleared Chevron, has angered labor leaders and reignited a debate over the risks of the extraction technique that led to the worker's death. The method, in which a rush of steam heats the ground and loosens oil deposits, yields much of California's crude.

Labor leaders said that for years workers have had safety concerns about the process, which they described as inherently dangerous because injecting steam at high pressures to coax oil from the porous earth can create a minefield of craters-in-waiting.

"They let Chevron off the hook way too easy," said Ed Crane, secretary-treasurer of United Steelworkers Local 12-6, the union that represents oil field workers. "A guy died, for God's sake. If people aren't being trained properly, how does $350 handle that? Chevron is not going to pay attention to that."

The company has appealed the citation. Chevron declined to comment on the case other than to say in a statement that it is challenging "several inaccuracies and matters that needed clarification."

According to state inspectors, Robert David Taylor and two Chevron co-workers were walking in a Kern County oil field last June when they observed discolored soil. As they moved closer, the earth opened up and swallowed Taylor. Immersed in a caldron of oil fluids, he yelled for help as a co-worker tried to reach him — first by hand, then with a piece of pipe.

His body was recovered 17 hours later.

The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health closed the case after a two-month investigation, finding no violations. "They kind of concluded that it was like an act of God," said Peter Melton, a spokesman for the agency.

Investigators revisited the accident in September at the urging of officials in the state's oil and gas agency, who were concerned about whether the site posed environmental or public safety hazards. The regulators had banned steam operations near the Chevron well after the accident, but rocks and fluids continued to spew from the ground. The "volatile eruptions" sent fluid and debris as high as 100 feet in the air, according to emergency orders issued by oil regulators.

A Cal/OSHA investigator declared the site an imminent hazard and issued an order barring workers from the area until they received safety training. Chevron, the order said, had failed to warn employees of the dangers of steam injection, specifically sinkholes.

Regulators cited the company in February for not informing workers in writing of "necessary safeguards." The firm also failed to establish written guidelines for using tools to help gauge ground movement, the citation said.

Melton defended the $350 fine, saying Chevron had orally warned its workers of the dangers. He also noted Taylor's status as a veteran oil worker with more than three decades of experience.

"There's no question that those three employees who went out there knew they were entering a potentially dangerous area," Melton said. "They weren't sent out there blindly."

The state oil and gas agency has been conducting its own investigation, but officials said a final report "will not be ready for a few weeks, at least."

More than nine months after the accident, the Chevron well continues to gush dozens of barrels of oil fluid a day, according to the oil and gas agency. Regulators said they are looking to Chevron and a competitor who also practices steam injection in the area to identify the source of the problem.

Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown fired his top two oil regulators in a dispute over underground injection, saying that they had needlessly stepped up environmental scrutiny and slowed the permitting process. One of the officials Brown installed as a replacement told lawmakers at a hearing last month that regulators and the energy industry alike were still struggling to control the technology.

Mark Nechodom, director of the California Department of Conservation, said using steam to extract oil can be "very tricky."

"The industry itself is learning as it's going along," he said. "I'm not saying it's stumbling around doing dumb things entirely, but I'm saying that the industry is gathering as much information as it possibly can on how this very valuable resource can be exploited and produced without danger to the environment or human health."

Taylor's family, barred by state law from suing Chevron, has filed a wrongful-death suit against a contractor, saying negligent construction in the oil field contributed to the sinkhole. Lawyer Daniel Rodriguez said family members were puzzled by the fine and are hoping to learn more about the circumstances of the accident through their civil suit.

michael.mishak@latimes.com

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