Texas

Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

Well Fire in Pearsall Shows How Oil Boom Strains First Responders

Photo courtesy of Pearsall Volunteer Fire Department

An explosion and fire rocked an oil fracking site in South Texas last week. Three were injured.

What happened last week at a disposal well outside of Pearsall, Texas? An explosion rocked the site early Thursday evening – about 50 miles southwest of San Antonio in the Eagle Ford Shale – blowing the lid off a storage tank and injuring three. A fire burned for over an hour as the all-volunteer Pearsall Fire Department (and three other nearby departments) battled the flames with twelve trucks and 33 firefighters.

The explosion likely started when workers there were welding near storage tanks, a decision that has many in the industry scratching their heads. The accident is now under federal investigation.

But there’s still much we don’t know.

Who Owns the Well?

First, we don’t know who owns the disposal well, which is used for taking wastewater from fracking and drilling and injecting it deep underground. That water contains highly flammable oil and natural gas.

While the well is operated by a company called High Roller Wells (which doesn’t appear to have a website), it’s unclear who actually owns it. When asked, the Railroad Commission would only say that it does not ”have information on investors or owners of oil and gas facilities.”

A call to the only available number online for High Roller Wells leads to the office of Terry Bailey, listed as a manager of the company. A woman who answered the phone at his office declined to answer any questions about the company or the accident. She directed all inquiries to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), then abruptly hung up.

High Roller Wells incorporated in 2010, and it received a permit for the disposal well in August of last year. The company appears to be named after another of Bailey’s companies, High Roller Whitetails, a deer breeding operation. They breed whitetail bucks, some of them with horns over 300 inches, with names like Escalade, Bambi Rio and Rolex.

According to the Texas Deer Association’s website, Bailey is an avid hunter who “made a niche for himself in the oil and gas industry on the manufacturing end.” Online business directories list High Roller Wells and High Roller Whitetails at the same address and phone number. On Google Maps, the street appears to be mostly residential.

What Happened in Pearsall

The Railroad Commission of Texas, which oversees drilling and disposal wells in the state, conducted an initial investigation of the explosion. It released a two-paragraph statement the next day, but since then has provided little other information on the accident, referring questions to the OSHA, the federal agency now investigating the accident.

Jeff Funke, area director for the OSHA San Antonio office, spent some time talking about the fire with StateImpact Texas.

He says one issue investigators have run into is determining which ignition source at the site started the fire. ”I can tell you there were many potential sources [of ignition] there,” he says.

“You shouldn’t be handling that water around ignition sources,” says David Blackmon, Texas spokesperson for the American Natural Gas Alliance, a group that represents many major gas companies, some of which drill in the area. “It’s a pretty significant error in safety, no doubt about that. Somebody’s not happy about that, believe me.”

Wild Well Control Inc.

A crew from Houston-based Wild Well Control fights a blowout

The most seriously injured worker was Ruben Esparza, 47, of Pearsall, who was admitted to the hospital after the accident. Esparza “was spitting out quite a bit of blood, maybe from the impact,” Frio County Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Joel Arellano told the San Antonio Express. “Maybe from the explosion he kind of blew against something.” Esparza was the only worker admitted to the hospital.

“It could have been worse,” says OSHA’s Funke, echoing the assessment of the volunteer fire department that responded to the call. “Actually, I gotta say that the fact that the fire department was able to fight this with foam and water is pretty impressive for that area, for them to be able to respond at that level. Most fire departments [in the area] don’t have that capability with the foam.”

The accident has damaged High Roller Wells’ reputation. ”It’s a big deal for the company,” Blackmon with the American Natural Gas Alliance says, “because we all get graded by institutional investors on our safety record. So we go to great leaps to avoid having any kind of incident like that. I think if you look at the safety records of the big companies that are down there, these large independents are pretty stellar.”

New Kids on the Block

The OSHA area director echoes that sentiment. “We have a lot of producers and workers that are out there trying to get up and running as fast as they can,” Funke says. “And we have a lot of folks that are new to the oilfield industry.” Small, new companies like High Roller Wells are where the industry has the most issues, says Funke. “It’s not that they’re knowingly or willfully doing things wrong, but there’s so much work, they want to get up and going. That’s the real issue here.”

“It’s gonna take some catching up here,” says Jeff Funke of OSHA. “There’s an added strain on these local fire departments because of the influx of industry, there’s no doubt about that.”
Another issue is that as drilling and fuel exploration boom in the Eagle Ford, accidents are becoming more common. “Last year we had three fires related to oil and gas in [neighboring] Atascosa County,” says Funke. The Pearsall Volunteer Fire Department Chief who responded to the fire, Placido Aguilar, says they’ve responded to two other incidents in the past six months, “and they [drillers] say they’re gonna be here for a while.”

But while accidents are on the rise, local emergency services haven’t had an opportunity to catch up by increasing personnel, training and equipment. While drilling has been good for local coffers, causing tax revenues in some Eagle Ford counties to surge 900 percent in one month, it will take some time before those taxes translate into more robust emergency services. ”It’s gonna take some catching up here,” says Funke of OSHA. “There’s an added strain on these local fire departments because of the influx of industry, there’s no doubt about that.”

“There’s always a one to two year time lag,” says David Blackmon of the ANGA. “This year is the first year when those local tax districts are really going to be using their revenues.”

In some cases, Funke of OSHA says, companies take their own initiative to help local emergency services. “It you’re a large company, and they come out and respond [to an incident,” he says, “the company pays back the volunteer fire department for whatever they used up.” Companies have in some instances bought new trucks for the fire departments in their area.

What Happens Next

In the meantime, the investigation into the fire at the Pearsall disposal well continues. While Funke of OSHA says he doesn’t know a lot about High Roller Wells, he does say they’ve been cooperative.

He’s also certain that the company will be punished. “There will be proposed citations that will be issued to the company,” he says. They have six months from the date of the fire to issue those citations, but he doesn’t expect it will take that long. He says High Roller Wells can likely expect a citation from OSHA within a few months.

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