April 25, 2012 UPDATE: This week OSHA issued ten citations for “serious violations” by High Roller Wells, which operates the disposal well. You can read more about those citations here.
Three people have been injured after an explosion and fire at a disposal well in Pearsall, Texas Thursday night. The site is used for disposal of fracking fluids from the Eagle Ford Shale in South Texas, about 50 miles from San Antonio.* The fire burned for several hours and was put out by 9 p.m. last night. It isn’t clear yet what caused the explosion. (The Railroad Commision of Texas, which oversees drilling in the state, later released a statement explaining the explosion. You can read it below.)
Update: StateImpact Texas spoke with Pearsall Volunteer Fire Department Chief Placido Aguilar today about the fire. He said that at about 5:30 p.m. Thursday an oil tank exploded and caught fire. It took about an hour and a half to get under control once firefighters arrived. “There were four departments from around here, twelve trucks, and 33 guys that helped with the fire,” he told StateImpact Texas. He said that the fire department had to cool down three tanks holding oil so they wouldn’t reignite.
Aguilar says the site uses hydraulic fracturing to drill for oil.* “There was a well running when we got there that had to be shut down,” Aguilar said. “I know it’s producing, [because] they had three tanks full of oil. That one that exploded lost its top and was on fire.” (Update: These earlier reports appear to be wrong. The site is used for disposal of wastewater from fracking and drilling, according to the Railroad Commission of Texas. Read the statement from the Railroad Commission of Texas on the explosion here.)
With drilling taking off in the Eagle Ford Shale, is Aguilar concerned that his all-volunteer department will have to respond to more fires like these? ”Yes, probably in the last six months we’ve had two other incidents. And they [drillers] say they’re gonna be here for a while.”
Aguilar, who works as a delivery man at Parsons furniture, said that his department hasn’t received any additional funding or personnel during the fracking boom in South Texas and isn’t expecting any, either. In fact, he said that Thursday’s fire was actually fortunate timing for the volunteer department. “Everybody was getting out of work around the time it happened, so we had plenty of help,” he said. “If it had happened during the day, I don’t know what would’ve happened. I don’t know if we would’ve been able to put it out.”
Chief Aguilar doesn’t know who owns the well. ”I haven’t been able to get that information yet,” he said. His department won’t be doing any further investigation unless the company’s insurance agents become involved. He said that from here it is up to the Railroad Commission of Texas to investigate. (Update: StateImpact Texas has contacted the Railroad Commission and they released this statement. The well is operated by High Roller Wells.)
KSAT San Antonio has a report from the scene (and video of the fire):
Just before 6 p.m., officials said the explosion knocked the top off one oil well, launching it 25 yards in the air. Heavy flames and black smoke could be seen from miles away. “All the oil spread and started burning on top of those frack tanks,” said Placido Aguilar, Pearsall Fire Chief.
Firefighters from Pearsall and Dilley used a combination of water and foam to attack the blaze. Aguilar said firefighters also monitored levels of hydrogen sulfide, which is a poisonous gas. By 8 p.m., firefighters finally had things under control.
KSAT says that it isn’t clear how serious the injuries were to the three workers, but that “police said all three men were conscious and breathing when they were taken to the hospital.”
On January 6 a fire occurred after a blowout at a well in Oklahoma that was going to be fracked for natural gas:
*This report earlier indicated the site was an oil well, based on news reports and an interview with the Pearsall Volunteer Fire Department Chief, but the Railroad Commission of Texas says today that the site was used as a disposal well for fluids from drilling and fracking. Here is the commission’s statement:
“A Railroad Commission inspector responded around 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 19, to a storage tank fire at a saltwater disposal facility operated by High Roller Well, LLC, south of Pearsall on State Highway 581, south of Pearsall. Preliminary information provided to the inspector indicates that while a truck was unloading saltwater with a skim of condensate (liquid hydrocarbons) into a collection tank, welders were working nearby and sparks from the welding may have ignited vapors around the storage tank, causing the explosion. A firewall around the storage tank site contained spilled fluids, which were picked up with by a vacuum truck.
No violations of RRC rules were found, and the High Roller Well LLC lease is in compliance with Commission rules. As injuries were reported in this incident, the lead investigating agency for this incident would be the federal agency, OSHA, which needs to be contacted for further information.”