State gas agency confirms hydrogen sulfide reports
Post Independent staff
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
The Colorado agency charged with overseeing natural gas drilling in the state says one company, at least, has admitted to encountering hydrogen sulfide at drilling rig sites in Garfield County.
What the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) is not sure of yet, said Executive Director Dave Neslin, is how much of the toxic gas was encountered and at what concentrations.
“That’s one of the things we’re going to be looking into,” Neslin told the Post Independent in a telephone interview Wednesday. He referred to news accounts and other reports that Noble Energy Inc., a gas drilling company operating in Garfield County, had run into hydrogen sulfide gas at its drilling sites for several years.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, hydrogen sulfide, or H2S, is a hazardous and toxic gas that, when inhaled, can cause severe respiratory distress, headaches, loss of motor control and memory and other human ailments. It is produced when certain bacteria consume sulfur-bearing organic matter.
At concentrations below 30 parts per million (ppm) it puts off a smell like rotten eggs. At 100 ppm or more, it can paralyze the olfactory nerve and cause a loss of the sense of smell. Exposure at increasing concentrations can cause nausea and vomiting, difficulty breathing, shock, convulsions and death in the most severe cases.
Stuart Ellsworth, engineering manager for the COGCC, said a search of the commission’s records showed that Noble, which is a U.S. subsidiary of a Canadian company, had reported encounters with hydrogen sulfide 313 times, among its total of 353 wells.
The reports, Ellsworth said, indicated that 271 of the encounters of the gas came in at less than 10 parts per million, a level that is considered safe.
But 41 reports indicated concentrations of greater than 10 parts per million.
The reports run counter to industry and government statements that hydrogen sulfide is only rarely found in the Piceance Basin gas fields, which include much of Garfield County.
Neslin said Noble has been contacted and is expected to produce more details about the gas concentrations, “hopefully within days.”
The Noble reports, Neslin said, covered an incident in 2009 that left a local man with double vision and other symptoms, and may have cost another worker his life.
Carl McWilliams of Silt Mesa, a former employee of a Noble subcontractor, Lonkar Services (USA), said he was working at a drilling rig in March of 2009 when he and a co-worker were exposed to high levels of hydrogen sulfide while they were “swabbing” a well, which involves opening the well head and penetrating the contents with a sort of plunger.
Their job was to restart the flow of gas that had been plugged by a complex set of conditions deep in the Earth. McWilliams believes those conditions were responsible for the formation of a pocket of hydrogen sulfide, which blew out of the well head as soon as they opened it.
Within days, McWilliams was suffering from severe double vision and other ill feelings.
His fellow worker, Troy Orth, 48, died on March 12, 2009, within days of the incident, McWilliams has reported. The cause of death was listed as a heart attack, McWilliams recalled.
“I can’t prove this,” McWilliams said, “but I believe it damaged Troy’s heart to the point that he had a heart attack.”
McWilliams reported the incident to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, alleging that his employer had not adequately trained him or Orth about how to deal with the gas, and that it had not implemented sufficient safety procedures to protect its employees.
McWilliams’ “whistle-blowing,” as he calls it, resulted in multiple citations against Lonkar, which does business as Lightning Wireline in Rifle.
The OSHA investigation, according to documents provided by McWilliams, reported hydrogen sulfide readings of 60 parts per million and 100 parts per million, both higher than are considered safe by federal standards.
The OSHA report specifically cited the company for inadequate training of its employees with regard to hydrogen sulfide, and with failing to provide workers with adequate safety equipment. It resulted in fines totaling $5,625.
It also cost McWilliams his job, he told the Post Independent, and left him blacklisted in the region’s natural gas industry.
“My name is mud in the drilling industry in Garfield County,” said McWilliams, who now is a vocal critic of some industry practices.
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