Toxic oil and gas industry vapors suspected in deaths of three Colorado oil and gas workers; Why blame nature or the victims?

Toxic vapors suspected in deaths of three Colorado oil and gas workers by Monte Whaley, May 18, 2015, The Denver Post
Joe Ray Sherman’s death on a Weld County oil patch last year was tragic but not entirely unexpected.

The 51-year-old was diabetic and suffered heart problems. The native Texan moved to Colorado 20 years ago in hopes that the clear, mountain air would get him healthier.

The Weld County coroner confirmed what many believed, ruling his death while servicing one of the county’s oil wells was caused by heart disease.

But his March 2014 death soon became part of a mysterious puzzle that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is piecing together along with eight other oil field deaths over the past five years. 

All of the fatalities occurred at crude oil production tanks, and all the victims were either working alone or weren’t being observed by anyone.

Most of the death certificates listed natural causes or heart failure as the cause. [ISN’T IT CONVENIENT TO ALWAYS BLAME NATURE OR THE VICTIM?]

Three of the deaths were in Colorado, three more in North Dakota and one each in Texas, Oklahoma and Montana.

By late April, federal health officials had enough evidence to sound a national alarm over a dangerous trend in America’s oil fields. The men died after inhaling toxic amounts of hydrocarbon chemicals after either tank gauging — measuring the level of oil or other byproducts in tanks coming out of wells — or from taking samples of oil for more testing. 

The exposure happens when hatches on production tanks are opened manually and a plume of hydrocarbon gases and vapors are released under high pressure. The gases and vapors can include benzene, a carcinogen, as well as hydrocarbons like ethane, propane and butane. 

Besides explosions and asphyxiation, high concentrations of hydrocarbons can cause disorientation and, in some cases, sudden death. [What do these deadly vapors do to families living next door, chronically exposed, as were the families bought out by Baytex in Alberta?]

“Just breathing in these chemicals at the right amount can kill,” said Robert Harrison, an occupational medicine physician at the University of California, San Francisco.

Harrison said medical examiners can sometimes miss signs of toxic inhalation during a routine autopsy, which is why some of the victims were thought to have died from natural causes. 

“It’s important that coroners run the right toxicology tests for those chemicals emitted from the tanks, said Harrison.

According to the CDC, inhalation victims can suffer cardiac arrhythmia — or irregular heartbeat — and have problems in getting enough oxygen. Exposure can also cause inadequate ventilation of the lungs.

The CDC and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health signaled the hazards of tank gauging this spring. They, along with the oil and gas industry, recently issued recommendations to companies to limit exposure to hydrocarbons. 

The recommendations include providing training of the proper use of respiratory protection and implementing engineering controls, including remote gauging and venting. [To exposure neighbouring families chronically, instead of workers acutely? What shoddy, self serving mitigation is that?]

“We will do everything we can to get this information out as quickly as possible,” said Kenny Jordan, executive director of the Association of Energy Service Companies.

The sudden hike in tank gauging deaths could be linked to the explosive growth of the oil and gas industry in the United States, which brought in younger, inexperienced workers, Jordan said.

“Over the years, we’ve had a massive buildup in terms of employment and a lot of new employees have come in,” Jordan said. “The best thing we can do is to get the information out there and get into every company’s hands.”

The problem is the nomadic nature of the oil and gas industry. Many oil and gas sites are in remote locations and run by subcontractors who may not have the resources or time to do in-depth training, Harrison said.

“Even just tracking down people for training is a challenge,” said Harrison.

Also, the hazards of tank gauging hasn’t been thoroughly studied, say health and industry officials. But it’s clear the practice can be deadly, even for veteran workers, Harrison said.

“The thing that really captured me is how sudden these deaths are,” Harrison said. “You could have done this work hundreds and hundreds of times. If you get a high enough concentration and someone inhales at one time, you are going down and you are never getting up.

Sherman, who worked for Now or Never Trucking in Greeley, lost consciousness while pulling an oil sample out of a tank in a site near Kersey, according to reports. Now or Never Trucking declined to comment on the incident.

Sherman fell backward on the 90-degree corner of the catwalk guardrail, where his clothing became hooked to the guardrail.

David Simpson’s death was similar. Simpson died outside Ardmore, Okla., in March 2014, at a Woodford Shale well that produced oil and gas, according to EnergyWire, an online publication that covers the oil and gas industry.

The 57-year-old was found collapsed on a catwalk next to a tank hatch. The Oklahoma medical examiner office listed his cause of death as unknown, although the CDC considers him a likely victim of toxic inhalation. 

Oil and gas sites are exempt from many OSHA rules, and working in the industry is considered one of the most hazardous in the country. The national occupational fatality rate for the oil and gas industry was seven times higher than general industry and 2½ times higher than the construction industry between 2005 and 2009, according to the Colorado Department of Health and Environment.

… The Weld County coroner’s report on Sherman’s death includes a note that “despite the death occurring on a work site, there is no evidence to suggest that the work environment contributed to the death.”

Sherman’s older sister — Sherry Tinney of Junction, Texas — is still wondering what to think about her brother’s death.

“The coroner told us he died of an underlying heart condition, and I’m hoping we were told the truth,” Tinney said.

“He had breathing problems,” she added, “so the doctor suggested he move to a place like Colorado to help his breathing, and he liked it there and he stayed.

“But now I wish he hadn’t.”

Nine deaths in five years 

Federal agencies are looking into the deaths of nine oil and gas workers in a five-year span related to suspected toxic inhalation (names and locations were not included): 


• A flow tester was expected to gauge a crude oil tank. He was discovered in the early morning facedown in the upper hatch of a crude oil storage tank.

• An employee was assigned to routinely (on the hour) gauge the amount of liquid in three oil tanks on site. The employee was found dead by a delivery driver, at the bottom of the stairs next to the tank battery.

• An oil tanker tractor-trailer driver died while collecting crude oil samples. Coroner reports state he died of cardiovascular disease and sudden cardiac death, and states that toxic gas inhalation and oxygen displacement by volatile hydrocarbons may have been contributory.

• A man working for a transport company was found collapsed and nonresponsive on a catwalk adjacent to a crude oil tank.

• A man lost consciousness while pulling an oil sample out of a tank. He fell backward on the 90-degree corner of the catwalk guardrail.

• A truck driver pumping and hauling crude oil from a tank battery was found on the catwalk next to a tank, slumped over. It appears he was measuring the volume of liquid from the top of the tank battery.  


• A truck driver was transferring crude oil from a tank battery and was found slumped over a railing on top of the tank battery. 


• A worker tasked with gauging a crude oil tank was found dead on the tank battery.


• A man was found slumped over on the catwalk next to an oil storage tank.

Source: CDC

[Refer also to:

2015 04 13: Federal Report Attributes Nine Worker Deaths to Oilfield Vapors, Excluding Two Fatalities Earlier in 2015 Linked to Well Vapors

2015 03 02: N.D. Supreme Court approves benefits in vapor death; Industry Group Issues Warning For Fracking Vapors: ‘One Breath Could be Death’

2015 02 19: British Columbia’s Ministry Health withholding data, report of scientific research on how oil and gas operations are affecting human health in northeast communities; Refusing to release even under FOIP: “could be harmful to the financial interest of a public body”

2014 08: U.S.Centers for Disease Control Preliminary Study: Finds dangerous levels of benzene in frac workers’ urine; Imagine the urine of children living next door to toxic tanks, fracing etc 

2014: A lot too late: Federal officials warn about dangers of airborne petrochemicals blowing out of oil well tank hatches

2014: Four Fatalities Linked to Used Fracking Fluid Exposure During ‘Flowback,’ NIOSH Reports

2014 10 08: How many families left behind?  How many will die of cancer? Baytex Finally Successful, Gags & Settles Poisoned Alberta Families: Does a lawyer-touted “positive outcome” of displacing and gagging poisoned families, stop the poisoning? “Our house is contaminated…there’s a smell now…Part of the torture of all this is not only abandoning our farm, but the health experts…told us we shouldn’t bring anything (with us).”

Baytex Gag Order and Can You Silence a Child? Inside the Hallowich Case

Lawyer asks court to shut Baytex bitumen plant releasing harmful pollution that forced Alberta families to vacate their homes years ago

British medical journal, The Lancet, writes story on plight of Peace River-area families dealing with bitumen pollution

Experts Margaret Sears and Donald Davies at Baytex hearings differ widely on the health effects of emissions

Baytex commits at public AER hearing to capture tank-top emissions; the regulator granting harmed Albertans a hearing occurs rarely – like winning the lottery

2014 08 07: Peace River, Alberta: Thieves stole computer, files but left cash, reports farmer Carmen Langer (who spoke out for years about Baytex’s toxic emissions)

2014: Court date set in Baytex fumes case for families that were forced to vacate their homes in the Peace River area of Alberta If Alberta had an energy regulator that regulated and enforced, would poisoned families need to file lawsuits?

2014: Health report: some Alberta doctors refused to treat families exposed to toxic emissions by Baytex in Peace Country, one lab refused to process a test; 10 day public hearing starts Tuesday

2012 06 06 Forced Evacuations in Progress thanks to Baytex Energy in rural Alberta

Source: FrackingCanada Fracking Calgary

2013 12 25 Snap from CBC video showing regulator clip on the Baytex toxic emissions2013 12 25 Snap from Stop Baytex

Where did the Stop Baytex website and Facebook page go?  Removed by Settle ‘n Gag?  What about the families and workers left behind? Still breathing toxic vapors?


Families Seek Court Injunction Against Tar Sands Producer, Alberta Energy Regulator probe into Peace River emissions sparked in part by Tyee investigation

“No Duty of Care” legally immune even for Charter violations Alberta Energy Regulator “sweeps” toxic fumes operations for two weeks. And when the sweep is done, then what?

Alberta’s Energy Regulator (AER) continues to deregulate, more 100% industry funded deregulation to come

AER shows its true colours: caves to polluting tarsands company, allows Baytex to continue harmful emissions 4 more months!

2014: Alberta workplace fatalities close to record numbers in 2013, led by a near doubling of fatalities caused by occupational disease

New Study: Emissions may be two to three times higher, some pose cancer risk; Environmental health risks of Alberta tarsands probably underestimated

2014: Colorado Investigates a Spike in Fetal Abnormalities Near Natural Gas Drilling Site, A prevalence of anomalies such as low birth weight and congenital heart defects are found within a 10 mile radius of a concentration of gas wells ]

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