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July 8, 2011
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OSHA fines Rifle company in wake of worker's death

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration has cited a Rifle drilling services company with nine violations of federal labor law, six of them serious in nature, related to the 2010 death of employee Jose Lara.

The agency also has proposed fines totaling just over $10,000 in connection with the violations, and ordered the company to remedy the problems listed in the citations.

Lara, 42, died on Sept. 11, 2010, of pancreatic and liver cancer after working for six years for Western Oilfields Supply Co., doing business as Rain For Rent, according to his widow, Maria.

Rain For Rent is based in California. The Rifle branch of the company leases out tanks to gas drilling companies for storage of fluids used in the process known as hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking."

The Rifle office of Rain For Rent referred a reporter's call to the California home office. Calls to the California office were not returned.

Fracking involves injection of vast amounts of water, sand and chemicals into a well bore to fracture rock strata and make it easier for gas and oil to flow to the surface.

Lara cleaned out the tanks returned to Rain For Rent, or worked on the connections between tanker trucks, tanks and the well head, according to a letter sent by Maria Lara to OSHA last year.

The family has maintained that Jose Lara was sickened by exposure to the chemicals contained in the fracking fluids.

Several companies have responded that the amount of chemicals in the fluids is minuscule, and that the fluids are not hazardous to human health.

Six of the citations against Rain For Rent, issued by the Denver office of OSHA on June 8, are categorized as "serious," while three are listed as "other."

The Post Independent received a copy of OSHA's letter from attorney Paul Gertz, who has been representing Jose, prior to his death, and Maria Lara in their bid for employment compensation payments and other matters.

The citations deal with employee protection against, or exposure to "hydrocarbons and hydrogen sulfide when cleaning the inside [of the tanks] and removing residual sludge and film."

Specifically, the citations concern:

• Improper training of employees in the use of testing and monitoring equipment. The lack of proper training, OSHA concluded, meant that employees did not have "the understanding, knowledge and skills necessary for the safe performance of duties."

• A lack of continuous monitoring of the area where employees worked inside the tanks to clean them, install or remove "modifications," and look for holes.

• Failure to adequately evaluate the ability of the local fire department "to respond in a timely manner" to emergencies involving employees exposed to toxic chemicals in a "confined space," as the tanks are formally known.

• Failure to adequately label "each container of hazardous chemicals" to ensure employees understood the contents and possible dangers of handling those contents.

Maria Lara, still living in Rifle, was not available for comment for this story.

Todd Zentner, temporary acting area director for OSHA, said the case remains open and that he could not tell whether Rain For Rent had contested the citations and penalties.

"I wouldn't be surprised if they're in some kind of settlement process," Zentner said.

jcolson@postindependent.com


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The Post Independent Updated Jul 8, 2011 12:23AM Published Jul 8, 2011 12:18AM Copyright 2011 The Post Independent. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.