Hydrogen Sulphide and Denver City- Danger in the Oilfield
Arco's Willard Unit Well No. 66
A Real Killer
Hydrogen Sulphide or H2S is a common oil field chemical problem. When you are drilling a well in certain areas this common chemical, not restricted to oil wells, may be encountered at any time so certain procedures are now followed to mitigate its impact. What is that impact you ask? Death! At 10 ppm (parts per million) this gas will begin to irritate the nasal passages and at 500 ppm one breath and you are dead.
On Sunday, February 2, 1975 in Denver City Texas a terrible tragedy occurred. In a peaceful neighborhood, Arco's Willard Unit Well No. 66 stood about 200 feet behind the Patton house. The morning was chilly, damp, foggy and nearly windless. At approximately 2:16 am and without warning H2S began to seep from the experimental gas injection well pipe connection on the well head. Being windless, this heavy gas stayed close to the ground and flowed out into the neighborhood heading a bit to the south. In its path lay nine people that would all find they had something in common that morning, very bad luck.
By 5:15 a.m.Sunday, Seven victims - Glenda Patton; her daughter Delores “Dee Dee”; their relatives, Edith and Alma Lee “Pete” Amerson, Evelyn and J.R. May; and Delores’ friend, Clara Peevy were dead. Five were in a running car and two were in a running pickup; Glenda’s husband, J.C., was lying on the ground nearby.
Their neighbor, Tom Merrill, had called to warn them of the chemical cloud that had made his wife ill and might be heading their way, but they suffocated seconds after rushing outside and straight into the cloud.
A ninth victim, 19 year old Steve Sparger, was an Atlantic Richfield Company pumper, who had gone to check on the well after hearing the alarm of a gas leak. He was found in his pickup in a ditch along County Road 330 suggesting that Sparger had driven into the cloud and was trying to turn around when he died.
By 1975, oil field workers had known for several generations about this "rotten-egg" gas and how it was possible to smother you in just a couple of breaths if concentrations were high enough. Oddly enough it could make you do crazy things like a raging drunk might do – if it didn't outright kill you.Hydrogen sulfide kills as it is uniquely lethal because it gets into your lungs and turns into a concrete-like substance, and the only treatment is for the victim to be treated in a hyperbaric chamber.
The public, however, seemed oblivious to this hydrogen sulfide until the "white hell" (as the Press depicted the cloud) killed nine innocent people in this small town just on the Texas - New Mexico Border.
Why did this happen? It was caused by a misapplication of 1 stainless steel nipple that was unsuitable for use on a well with 40,000 ppm of highly corrosive H2S.
So what has been the result? This disaster paved the way for many changes in Oil Field Safety Requirements and in public awareness of this silent killer.
Today the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has identified 14 "major H2S-prone areas" in 20 states. Four of these areas are inTexas.
In 1975, there were no signs saying “Poison gas”. Today, Denver City is awash with warning signs, even some on lawns of fashionable homes. While the signs are so plentiful that it may be easy to start ignoring them and to grow complacent about this naturally occurring chemical, one can’t do that. Only Vigilance and Common Sense will save your life.
As a representative of my company T.I.H. Environmental, LLC, when I am out in the oil field I have to be constantly aware of my surroundings and the wind direction as I always want to park upwind. I must look for telltale signs that maybe this well or that well is an H2S site but the signs or socks are down or missing. I have to be aware of the smell, that strange rotten egg smell that mat be my only signal that I need to evacuate the premises. I have to wear my air monitor at all times. There is always the possibility for a problem.
Oil Field work is extremely hazardous, even for people like me who just have to do environmental reports.
H2S gas being flared off in Texas
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