Worker suffers serious burns in tank fire at oil and gas drilling operation in west Greeley
A flash fire at an oil and gas drilling site early Monday in west Greeley seriously injured one person and caused about $1,000 in damage, according to a Greeley Fire Department news release.
Greeley firefighters got the call at 5:54 a.m. Monday, and arrived to find a 3,000-gallon tank of production water on fire. Firefighters closed an open lid on the tank, eliminating the fire's oxygen supply and stopping the fire, according to the release.
The production water had been used in the well fracturing process, according to the release.
A contract worker at the site, which is operated by Synergy Resources Corporation, suffered serious burn injuries and was taken by ambulance to North Colorado Medical Center. Fire investigators determined the fire was accidental, resulting from vapors escaping the tank, according to the release. The department's release called the vapor release a normal process, adding that the vapors settled low to the ground due to weather conditions. The vapors then came into contact with heat and flame from an engine backfiring on a portable power generator, according to the release.
Mike Eberhard, chief operating officer for operations for Synergy, said the company has notified all relevant regulatory agencies, and is cooperating with the investigation.
"First and foremost, our concerns are for the injured contractor," Eberhard said.
Eberhard said drilling was complete at the site, and workers were doing completions, which means preparing the site for production. Eberhard said the company has shut down operations at the site while the investigation continues, and operations won't resume until it's determined to be safe to do so.
The same Synergy drilling site reported a drilling fluid spill totaling five barrels in the March 24 spill report, saying it was caused by the unintentional release from a rupture in the hose between the mud pumps and the drilling rig.
Greeley Fire Department learns several lessons in its first big test in oil-gas firefighting
As the black smoke billowed menacingly through the air on a cloudy spring day this past April, Greeley residents flocked to a spot a couple miles east of Greeley to stare in awe at the rising flames and to cheer for firefighters to squelch the blaze.
Then the explosions came, feeding the flames as they rose a good hundred feet into the air. The fire, sparked by the most natural of acts, a lightning bolt that struck a waste-water-injection tank, would be Greeley firefighters' first big test in combating an oil and gas-related blaze.
The blaze gave firefighters a living laboratory with which to put their training to use, and the charred remains, which were contained on site without spreading to the surrounding area, validated some precautions the city had taken with oil and gas facilities for years.
While the general public has grown to expect fires to be put out in minutes, Greeley fire training in the previous years has challenged that conventional wisdom when it came to oil and gas-related fires.
"It's pretty standard to let it burn," said Dale Lyman, fire marshal for the city of Greeley. Greeley's Fire Station No. 1 responded to the fire, which was near the Greeley-Weld County Airport. "An hour or two later, it looks like, 'Those guys haven't put that fire out yet?' But with these, we've learned you need to have a good strategy, plan, resources and a risk analysis," Lyman said. "It's a lot different than what people normally think about fires and putting them out as quickly as possible. It was tough on the firefighters, as well, because they've trained their whole careers to put it out and put it out fast."
This fire burned for four hours before firefighters began their attack.
THE WAITING GAME
When the call came in about 1:10 p.m. April 17, 2015, firefighters were out there in minutes. The lightning struck a wastewater storage tank, heating the metal to thousands of degrees, which ignited the vapors inside.
Winds were strong that day, and it spread the fire to some storage tanks that were sitting above ground. The NGL Water Solutions injection well facility is one of several across the county that take wastewater from drilling sites. Those tanks held wastewater after the petroleum products had been skimmed before being injected 10,000 feet into the ground for storage, a process regulated by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.
"Produced water does contain things that are flammable, and I know for many years, people didn't think it was, and even I talked to guys in the oil and gas industry, who thought, 'It's just wastewater.' But yes, wastewater burns," Lyman said. Wastewater is the byproduct of hydraulically fracturing a well. The water is pumped in at high pressure, and it flows back out along with oil and natural gas liquids. The water is separated on the surface and trucked away for disposal.
What happened next was like watching a boiling teapot on a stove. The flames snuck beneath the tanks, heating the water inside. All such tanks are equipped with valves to release vapors when pressures get high. In this case, the pressure valves couldn't keep up, and the tanks subsequently exploded, shooting up hundreds of feet into the air.
"We could feel that on the ground," Lyman said, "and we were 1,000 feet away. That was very scary."
As intense as it was, firefighters had to keep their wits about them. There were more tanks on site. That made it unsafe to fight the fire on the ground when they arrived.
THE PLAN OF ATTACK
On scene, firefighters were immediately in touch with the site operators. They determined there were no injuries and all employees at the facility were safe. Operators weren't worried about saving equipment or tanks.
"Then we started thinking about adjacent properties and the nearest homes," Lyman said, "so we started evacuating."
Typical evacuations go up to a half-mile away. The nearest house was 459 feet away, not even a tenth of a mile.
The site was fairly remote, but they were dealing with a volatile situation.
"One of the things we learned in training was before you initiate an attack, assemble all your resources, like foam and water," Lyman said. "We got mutual aid from Eaton and Kersey fire departments. From the beginning we had the people from the injection well site close by to our command post.
"In that initial meeting, we discussed (the strategy). Since it was fairly isolated, we made the decision to let it burn, let the tanks vent, so we didn't have a high-pressure situation."
After that first tank exploded, they knew there were another two or three tanks on site that would do the same.
"We didn't want to put anyone at risk," Lyman said. "It was like a domino effect, and that was part of the plan. We knew we would have fire in the enclosed tanks and it creates pressure, and that's a risk to firefighters going there and getting close to it."
THE IMPORTANCE OF FOAM
In 2014, the Greeley Fire Department received a foam trailer, donated by Mineral Resources Inc., and fire personnel attended training for fighting flammable liquid fires.
"Just acquiring that piece of equipment was a huge step in getting everyone through the training," Lyman said. "Then we had that little incident on April 17 … which kind of brought everything full circle. We'd been going through all this preparation and planning, and we got to apply it."
At the scene, firefighters called in a second alarm to bring more equipment and the foam trailer to the site. Noble Energy officials, who have an oil and gas site nearby, brought in their foam trailer to help.
The foam was the most important aspect of fighting this fire, Lyman said. The foam trailer is equipped to hold 750 gallons of foam concentrate. They mixed it with 20,000 gallons of water, which in a rural setting was difficult to come by, complicating their firefighting efforts. Rural fire departments trucked in the water in semitrailers.
They had to make sure they had enough foam, because as Lyman said, "It's an all-or-nothing prospect."
Foam is applied to horizontal fires, or pools of fire on the ground. On site, the liquid from the tanks that had exploded remained in the contained area, surrounded by a berm, but that liquid was on fire. Firefighters must apply foam on that pool and completely cover it.
"It creates a barrier, a seal over the top of that liquid. It floats on top of the liquid and seals the vapors coming off the liquid," Lyman said. "In a flammable liquid fire, the vapors are what's burning. Foam takes away the fuel and cools it a bit."
Simply applying some foam on the fire, without covering it completely, renders the entire process useless, Lyman said. The fire will eventually burn through the foam blanket.
"It's like you did nothing at all," Lyman said.
They used more than 1,000 gallons of foam concentrate to contain this fire.
While the foam only works to seal the burning pools, there were three-dimensional objects on fire, Lyman said, such as tank valves and other equipment. Firefighters brought in a dry-chemical truck housed at the Greeley-Weld County Airport. Those chemicals act like a fire extinguisher when sprayed onto flames.
Once firefighters believed it was safe, and they began that attack, the fire was out in 20 minutes, Lyman said. Firefighters stayed there through the night, applying foam as needed, and they finally left the next morning at 4 a.m.
Greeley firefighters helped fight a blaze from a similar explosion east of Windsor a couple of years earlier, but it wasn't close to this size and scale. There also was a small fire a few years back near the Poudre Learning Center in west Greeley when vapors caught on fire at an oil storage tank, but that was quickly extinguished and caused little damage.
But they were prepared for this blaze, Lyman said.
Greeley's fire command staff attended an eight-hour oil and gas emergency response command class put on by a large company out of Houston called Wild Well Control.
"They're one of the companies that was contracted to fight the oil well fires during the Gulf War when Saddam lit off the oil and gas wells in Kuwait," Lyman said. "In the last three years, we have come a long way in our whole oil and gas response capabilities and knowledge base, training-wise."
That training comes to mind, he said, especially when residents have insinuated in recent public hearings that Greeley firefighters are ill-prepared for oil and gas explosions and fires.
Training is always ongoing, on every potential emergency, said Brad Mueller, community development director for the city of Greeley.
"Modern firefighters are prepared for a wide range of incidents, from a biological threat to weather-related to an industrial accident," Mueller said. "It's part of a broader strategy of being prepared for any types of incidents."
Officials from NGL Water solutions, which owns the injection well facility, did not return calls for comment on this story.
Lyman said he has a new level of comfort when it comes to the many oil and gas facilities in and around Greeley. Lyman said he felt encouraged by the city of Greeley's precautions when siting oil and gas facilities in more urban areas in Greeley.
The city of Greeley had 200-foot setbacks in place at the location of the fire. For this site, there was a row of trees in that 200-foot setback. Firefighters worried those trees would ignite with the heat and embers. They didn't. There was an outbuilding 340 feet away and a home 459 feet away from the flames. None of them were damaged — or even charred. The exploding tanks were located no more than 50 feet from their points of origin. The city allows for setbacks of 150-350 feet with landowner approval, Mueller said. In recent setback changes, the state moved those up to 500 feet form an occupied structure and 1,000 feet from structures such as apartment buildings, hospitals or schools.
"I learned a lot about our setbacks actually, that our setbacks were validated," Lyman said. "Up until this point, all the setback numbers we had worked with here in the city… they were all based on engineering studies that either owner/operators had commissioned and we actually commissioned to validate some of them, but they were all theoretical.
"We have a number of areas we looked at, radiant heat, potential explosions, natural gas leaks and plumes, they're all based on engineering theory and fire protection studies," Lyman said. "This fire was like a living laboratory."
"It was kind of reassuring for me," he said of the existing city setbacks. "It makes me feel pretty comfortable."
Frankly, there are scarier situations Lyman can envision, such as agricultural chemical storage, or the natural gas or other chemicals in people's homes.
"One of the worst incidents I've ever seen is when a guy disconnected a gas line to the furnace and completely blew up his whole house," Lyman said. "That's literally in every building in the city of Greeley. That potential is there."
THIS IS NOT THE END
It's not as if this is it. Firefighters know they need to keep abreast and keep training.
"This fire gave us enough lessons, but there are always things that can get thrown in to change the whole strategy and tactics, unique things you might not have considered," Lyman said. "There's unique weather, locations, so in general, it was good. I think it prepared us, but there's always new things and new twists that come into play that would definitely challenge us."
That's where the city's new public safety training facility will come in.
The facility — at 4th Street and 35th Avenue adjacent to an existing multiwell pad — will open mid-spring, and Noble Energy has already committed to donating equipment for props to help firefighters learn how certain field equipment works in fire situations. "It's just a place to practice. It's like the Denver Broncos training facility where they run through plays," Lyman said. "That's where we're going to go and run through our plays and use our equipment to become more efficient.