Alberta Energy Regulator investigates eruption at storage tank near High Level, Oily water sprays over natural gas production site as lid lifts off steel tank

Alberta Energy Regulator investigates eruption at storage tank near High Level, Oily water sprays over natural gas production site as lid lifts off steel tank by Sheila Pratt, August 15, 2013, Edmonton Journal
AER investigators arrived Wednesday on the remote site, seven days after the company, Calgary-based DeeThree Exploration, reported the incident, said Bob Curran, spokesman for the regulator. The site is accessible only by helicopter. Thousands of similar storage tanks are found at oil and gas production facilities across the province, Curran said. The eruption happened Aug. 7 just after 6 p.m. The two workers on-site were inside a house at the time. No one was injured. “There was no fire, no one was injured and the spray was confined to the lease site,” said Robin Bieraugle, manager of business development for DeeThree. “There is a coating (of oily emulsion) on the equipment but no pools of oil on the ground.” DeeThree operates about 20 natural gas wells in the area, Bieraugle said. The gas is piped to the production site along with a mixture of water and oil that comes up with the gas. The water and oil are separated and stored in separate tanks. The so-called “produced water ” that comes up the gas wells contains small amounts of hydrocarbons and is called an emulsion. It is stored in three 400-gallon tanks on-site. One of the tanks was being heated to “steam off the water” when the lid blew off, Bieraugle said. “We regret the loose oily water and its impact on the site and our first priority is to clean up the site and make sure there are no lasting impacts.” Rick Novak, who works on the site, said he and a co-worker had just stopped work for the day when they heard “a rumble like thunder” roll across the yard. Seconds later, he watched in shock as the big steel lid on a storage tank blew straight up in the air and landed about 15 metres away. Then a plume of black oily emulsion blew into the air “like a volcano” and sprayed all over the site, said Novak, a subcontractor. “Thank heavens we were in the house or we would have been covered.”

Novak said he quickly called his immediate supervisor, who asked if anyone was hurt. “We were pretty shook up.” Novak, 52, who has worked in the oilpatch for 30 years, said he’s heard of such incidents. The company has never had a similar incident with a storage tank. Operations on the site are halted until the investigation is complete. It’s unclear what caused the eruption, Bieraugle said. “We won’t know until the investigation is complete.” Curran also said it’s too early for Alberta Energy Regulator investigators to say what happened.  Under AER regulations, oil companies are required to dispose of produced water safely. Several methods are available. Injecting it back into the ground is one common method, Curran said. Companies are allowed to heat produced water sitting in storage tanks to keep the water flowing in winter. But disposing of the water through steam is not allowed under regulations, he said. In June 2011, the regulator issued a special bulletin that makes it clear boiling produced water is not acceptable. The regulator issued Bulletin 2011-21 when it “became aware” that a few companies were boiling produced water to disperse it in steam. “Although only a small number of licensees/operators appear to be using this technique at this time, the ERCB would like to notify all ERCB licensees and prospective licensees that boiling produced water and dispersing it into the atmosphere is not an ERCB authorized disposal method,” says the Bulletin.

Novak, who lives in Blackfalds, said he was also surprised and concerned no one from the Calgary company came to investigate until six days after the incident. “I suggested in a phone call that someone from the company should come to the site to investigate. But that didn’t happen until Tuesday.” DeeThree had full confidence in Novak, said Bieraugle. The Calgary company was relying on Novak and his supervisor in the Fort St. John subcontracting office to assess the situation, he added. “We spoke with Novak’s foreman, and together they assessed the risk determined the best course of action. There was a lot of communication.” But such potentially dangerous incidents put oilpatch workers like himself in an tough position, Novak said. They have to decide on their own when to shut down an operation and assess safety. He thinks workers could use more support in those instances. At first, Novak said, he tried to restart the heating of the water tanks. But he had second thoughts about whether that was safe, given the oily emulsion all over the equipment and on the landscape. “And after I talked to my daughters,” he said. So he decided to “exercise my right to refuse to restart the plant” because the situation felt unsafe, though he worries he will face repercussions for that decision. [Emphasis added]

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