Despite Known Hazards Of Storage Tank Vapors, Oilfield Workers Still Face Exposure
On a cold night in January 2012, Dustin Bergsing climbed to the top of a storage tank on a well pad in the North Dakotan Bakken oilfield. Bergsing was a well watcher; he measured the oil levels of the tanks.
He was later found dead by a co-worker, slumped on the catwalk.
An autopsy revealed that his blood contained hydrocarbons like benzene, ethane and butane – the same compounds found in natural gas. At that point, few people had heard of oil workers dying, out in the open, from inhaling petroleum gases. Because of Bergsing's case, four years later oilfield hydrocarbon vapor poisoning is a known occupational hazard. One that workers are still being exposed to every day as a routine part of doing their job.
When the Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigated Bersing's death, the agency closed the case because he didn't have any traces of a known oilfield killer – hydrogen sulfide, which can be deadly after just a few minutes – in his body.
"A citation could not be supported for work-related exposure," they wrote, declining to fine his employer.
Later that same year, Mike Soraghan, a reporter for EnergyWire, came across the case while working on a story about oilfield fatalities. He was dumbfounded.
"I just remember reading through [the OSHA report] and thinking, 'that's it? A 21-year-old kid just sort of dies out in the middle of nowhere and sort of nothing happens?'"
"It's not very common that you identify a new occupational health issue that's potentially fatal."
When Soraghan didn't understand what had killed Bergsing, and why no one was held accountable, he teamed up with doctor Bob Harrison, a clinical professor at University of California San Francisco who specializes in occupational and environmental medicine.
Harrison was intrigued by the case.
First, there was the fact that OSHA had declined to issue a citation to the company, even though petroleum gases had been found in the young well watcher's blood, which suggested, to Harrison, the death was work-related.
Second, he had never heard of an oil worker dying that way before.
Harrison didn't believe the rumors that Bergsing had been up on the tank trying to deliberately get high off the petroleum gases.
"Frankly, there are a lot easier ways to get high than going out in your long johns at 1:30 in the morning, in North Dakota, to gauge an oil tank," Harrison said. "It just didn't add up to me."
Similar to hydrogen sulfide, Harrison was convinced that you could die after just a few minutes of breathing high concentrations of petroleum gases. He suspected Bergsing had passed out when he opened the tank's hatch and was engulfed by a gas cloud – displacing the oxygen in the air, causing him to stop breathing.
Meanwhile, Soraghan had been digging through OSHA databases and media reports, trying to find other cases. He came across a 30-year-old man who died in 2010 in Montana in nearly identical circumstances to Dustin Bergsing – alone, collapsed on the catwalk on top of an oil pad crude storage tank. Harrison contacted the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, a branch of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and told them he suspected there might be a pattern. Their epidemiologists began to search OSHA databases of deceased workers for cases they may have missed, and they began to closely monitor any new fatalities.
Kyla Retzer, an epidemiologist with NIOSH, was very concerned about the two cases Harrison and Soraghan had uncovered. To her, it felt like working on an outbreak of an infectious disease, because workers kept dying.
"It's not very common that you identify a new occupational health issue that's potentially fatal," Retzer said.
When the NIOSH identified four deaths related to petroleum gases in May 2014, it issued an alert asking the public for help. By the end of 2014, the institute had identified nine workers who had died working around crude oil tanks, including three each in Colorado and North Dakota.
"If there's gas in your face, you kind of hold your breath."
In 2015, the agency updated its original alert, partnered with the oil industry to try to warn workers directly, completed a peer-reviewed study and, in February 2016, along with OSHA, issued an even more forceful warning about the risks.
Despite the increased awareness, workers continue to be exposed to these gases. That's frustrating to Bob Harrison, who said he never wants "to hear about another worker dead on top of an oil and gas tank."
Federal Regulations Increase Exposure Risks
One reason why workers continue to be exposed is that, under federal oil and gas regulations, oil companies are effectively required to send them up on oil and gas tanks to manually measure crude oil, putting them at risk.
Ryan Ehlis, a truck driver who hauls crude oil around the Bakken, is one of those workers for whom petroleum gas exposure is a regular part of his job. To measure the height of oil in a tank, he has to climb up to the top and open the hatch. This is done before and after he fills his truck – that's how he knows how much oil he's pumped.
At an well pad outside Watford City, North Dakota — where the petroleum gases had been particularly overwhelming — Ehlis pointed at a row of beige, 20-foot tall storage tanks.
"When I came down, I was kind of dizzy and lightheaded from the gas," he said.
To try and avoid exposure he stands upwind of the gas, or opening the hatch and letting it vent before he takes his measurements. These are workarounds he has learned through years on the job, but sometimes it doesn't work.
"If there's gas in your face, you kind of hold your breath," and then step in toward the hatch to take measurements, before stepping back into fresh air and repeating the process.
"But you can't avoid it entirely," Ehlis said.
Dennis Schmitz calls these "senseless exposures."
The oil and gas safety trainer knows from personal experience that workers do not have to be put in danger just to measure the height of crude oil in a tank or take a few oil samples. In Canada and in the offshore oil and gas industry, it is common to use automatic tank gauging technology or other types of remote measurement that don't expose workers to deadly gases. Schmitz knows because he used to work as a marine cargo inspector measuring crude oil tanks both on and offshore.
"I have felt that buckling of the knees, and the lightheadedness, literally puking off the side of the tank," he said. "And here's the odd thing. That's when we were onshore. When I was offshore, I wasn't exposed. … I never even questioned, why is it that I don't breathe the vapors (offshore) and I do breathe them (onshore)?"
Federal regulations play a large role. Two different government agencies regulate oil measurement on federal land onshore and offshore -- the Bureau of Land Management and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement. Formerly known as the Minerals Management Service, the BOEMRE was formed in 2010 in the reorganization that followed the BP oil spill and Deepwater Horizon disaster. State regulators are in charge of what happens on private and state lands.
Of the two agencies, the BLM is widely acknowledged as having the more outdated rules. According to a 2010 Government Accountability Office report, the former Minerals Management Service updated its regulations every year and as a result, they reflected current technology. "In contrast," the report notes, "BLM last revised its oil and gas measurement regulations in 1989. As a result, BLM's regulations do not reflect current industry … technologies and standards."
For Gary Wilson, general manager of TankLogix, a company that makes automatic oil measurement equipment, "it's maddening."
"We have a solution that could be ubiquitously deployed, and getting a change has proven to be extremely difficult," he said.
TankLogix's systems eliminate the need for workers to climb on top of oil tanks, but the BLM hasn't OK'd it. Only one kind of automated measurement is currently allowed by BLM – the Lease Automatic Custody Transfer, and it's expensive and only used on high-producing oil wells. As a result, they aren't that common. There are only 1,500 in use, compared to more than 83,000 oil tanks on federal land.
By being so inflexible, BLM's outdated rules make it very hard to use safer oil measuring devices. That makes manual oil tank measurement – which endangers workers – the most viable option for companies.
"When I came down, I was kind of dizzy and lightheaded from the gas."
Steve Wells, who oversees oil production on federal and Indian lands, said the BLM is just trying to make sure oil is accurately measured.
"If it's a public asset, then the taxpayer deserves to have their money, their assets, protected," he said. Because money is at stake, the BLM is extremely cautious about any new technology that might not be as accurate as the tried and true practice of sending workers up on tanks."
Still, the agency has been trying for years to move toward allowing more automated technology. Currently BLM is updating its 27-year old rule, called Onshore Order 4, for the first time since 1989. In the new proposed rule though, they will only allow one additional kind of automatic tank measurement – and it's a system that is still cost prohibitive to smaller companies.
Given the increased awareness of how dangerous manual crude oil measurement can be for workers, how likely was the BLM to consider worker safety when revising its rules?
"I think it's too early to tell right now," Wells said as he sighed. "But that is one of the considerations."
The agency won't make a final decision until summer 2016. Meanwhile, if you look at the comments on the proposed Onshore Order 4, many oil companies are nervous about any new regulations that might force them to spend money.
This is truck driver Ryan Ehlis's sixth year hauling crude oil in the oilfield. At the height of the boom, he made $175,000 a year.
"I've lived other places but even if I've tried to do other things, the oil patch is kind of where the money is," he said.
So he keeps doing it, putting himself at risk. There was only one time he had second thoughts. He was on a well pad, waiting to load his truck when another driver's truck sucked up petroleum gases through its air intake and exploded.
"I looked out my window and there's nothing but a huge orange fireball probably 50 feet in the air, everyone was running," he said, laughing a little. "That was the one night I questioned whether or not I should even be out here working. 'Like, is this worth it?'"
The doubt lasted about 24 hours and then Ryan got back to work. In this industry, it's easy to put money before worker safety – for the BLM, the oil companies, and for the workers themselves.
Inside Energy is a public media collaboration, based in Colorado, Wyoming and North Dakota, focusing on the energy industry and its impacts.