Udall looking into hydrogen sulfide poisoning report | PostIndependent.com

Udall looking into hydrogen sulfide poisoning report

John Colson
Post Independent staff
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado

U.S. Senator Mark Udall, D-Colo., is looking into charges that the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration has taken more than two years to conduct an investigation into claims by a Silt Mesa resident that he was exposed to potentially fatal toxic fumes while working on a gas drilling rig.

Silt Mesa resident Carl McWilliams has issued a number of highly critical diatribes by e-mail in recent months, in which he accused OSHA of taking too long with his case.

“It has been over 28 months since I filed my whistleblower complaint,” McWilliams wrote in an e-mail to Udall as well as two officials with OSHA, “and I have not received any communications from OSHA for one full year.”

McWilliams forwarded an e-mail sent to him in April 2009 by Rita Lucero from the complaint department at OSHA in Denver, acknowledging receipt of his initial inquiry. Lucero did not return calls from the Post Independent on Tuesday.

McWilliams also has alleged that there is an ongoing cover-up to conceal his exposure to hydrogen sulfide gas while working on a well pad, and to bury his complaints about the matter.

“We are looking into it,” said Tara Trujillo, communications director for Udall, from her office in Grand Junction. “This is going to take some time.”

Trujillo said on Tuesday that Udall’s office was awaiting a privacy waiver from McWilliams, without which they cannot approach OSHA about McWilliams’ case.

McWilliams, a former employee of a contractor in the gas drilling industry, has reported that he was working on a Noble Energy gas rig in March 2009 when he was sickened by what he believes was hydrogen sulfide gas.

McWilliams said he woke up a day after one incident of exposure with severe double vision and what he called “stroke-like symptoms.”

He filed a safety complaint with OSHA in April 2009.

In August of that year, OSHA cited McWilliams’ employer, Lonkar Services (USA), operating locally as Lightning Wireline, with several violations and fines related to the exposure of gas field workers to hydrogen sulfide without the proper protective equipment.

Shortly afterward, McWilliams has told the Post Independent and other news organizations, he was fired for being a whistle blower and exposing the company to federal inquiries.

Although the industry and state regulators have long argued that encounters with hydrogen sulfide are rare and nonhazardous in Western Slope gas fields, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission recently confirmed that the gas has been encountered at relatively high levels.

Lonkar, a Canadian firm that lists itself in the well testing business and other activities, referred calls to Lightning Wireline.

Lightning Wireline in Rifle, which is described on business-listing websites as specializing in “removal of condensate gasoline from field (gathering) lines,” could not be reached for comment.

A Lightning Wireline spokesman in Platteville, who identified himself only as Mike, said McWilliams’ charges were “investigated by the labor board, and they found that we didn’t do anything wrong.” He then referred a reporter to the Schlumberger corporation in Houston, which he said owns Lonkar. Calls to that office were not returned on Tuesday.

McWilliams has told the Post Independent that in early March 2009, he and a co-worker, Troy Orth, were “swabbing” a Noble gas well when they were exposed to high levels of hydrogen sulfide.

An OSHA report on the citations against Lonkar referred to gas levels of between 60 parts per million and 100 parts per million, which are well above levels considered safe by the Centers for Disease Control.

Swabbing, McWilliams explained, is a process for clearing blockages from a gas well bore in order to get the natural gas flowing freely to the surface. He said the process frequently brings large volumes of gas vapors to the surface.

Orth died three days later, and his death at the time was attributed to a heart attack. McWilliams believes the exposure to hydrogen sulfide had something to do with that heart attack.

Orth’s widow, Kim, told the Post Independent on Tuesday that she believes there is a cover-up going on, and agrees that an investigation is warranted.

“As far as there being a cover-up, absolutely, there’s no doubt,” Orth said in a telephone conversation. “They didn’t want me knowing anything.”

She said the company never told her anything about hydrogen sulfide, and that high-up executives seemed to be involved at the time.

“They flew their Lear jets down here when he died,” she recalled. “I still think it (hydrogen sulfide) might have contributed, but there’s no proof.”

She said her late husband was cremated shortly after he died.


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