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Permian Basin Oilfield Workers Face Growing Threat from Toxic Hydrogen Sulfide Gas

Permian Basin oilfield workers in West Texas and southeast New Mexico face dangers every day they’re on the job.

But few of those hazards are as insidious or as potentially deadly as hydrogen sulfide, a toxic gas that can quickly render a victim unconscious and kill within minutes.

What is Hydrogen Sulfide Gas?

Also known as H2S or “sour gas,” hydrogen sulfide gas ranks among the leading causes of sudden death in the workplace.

Heavier than air and colorless, the gas has a distinct “rotten eggs” odor. However, long-term exposure to low levels of H2S gas will eventually inhibit an individual’s ability to pick up the scent, while exposure to higher concentrations can inhibit that ability instantaneously.

Breathing in hydrogen sulfide gas at concentrations greater than 500 ppm can render a worker unconscious. Although just a single breath at 1,000 ppm will result in the immediate loss of consciousness, cardiac arrest, and death, loss of consciousness and death have also occurred after prolonged exposure to concentrations of 50 ppm.

Texas H2S Gas Permits Surged During Permian Basin Fracking Boom

According to E&E News, the number of drilling sites with hydrogen sulfide permits has grown significantly across Texas in the past several years, especially in the Permian basin, where the recent fracking boom revitalized the oil industry.

Ector County, which includes Odessa, has 2,552 sites with hydrogen sulfide permits, including around 800 issued in just the last decade. Andrews County, which is adjacent to Ector, has 4,037 permitted sites, the most in the state.  Almost half of those permits also originated in the past 10 years.

Despite the obvious dangers H2S gas poses to Texas oilfield workers, not much is being done to make hydrogen sulfide sites any safer.

For one thing, the U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) has far fewer inspectors available today compared to the previous two presidential administrations. And while inspectors from the Texas Railroad Commission did conduct 126,000 inspections statewide at sites with hydrogen sulfide permits, the vast majority simply verified whether warning signs and fences were in place.

H2S Gas Cited in Deaths of Odessa Oilfield Worker, Wife

Nationwide, hydrogen sulfide gas poisoning killed nine workers across all industries in 2017 and five in 2018, including several in the oilfield industry. H2S gas was also implicated in four workplace fatalities in 2019, including the tragic deaths of an oilfield worker and his wife on the northwest side of Odessa, Texas, last October.

The 44-year-old father of three had gone to check on a pump house operated by Aghorn Energy shortly after 10:00 p.m. on October 23rd. His wife, 37, drove to the location sometime later, worried that her husband hadn’t returned. Two of their children, ages 9 and 6, accompanied her.

Law enforcement officers discovered the couples’ remains following an alert from Aghorn Energy. Fortunately, their children were found in the car, away from the building, and only experienced mild exposure.

OSHA claims Aghorn Energy willfully ignored the danger at the pump house and failed to provide required training and essential safety equipment like respirators. While the company disputes those charges, the deceased worker’s father, a former employee who left his job in the wake of the couple’s deaths, has said Aghorn routinely flouted basic safety precautions.

“I think if they had the proper equipment and procedures in place that this wouldn’t have happened,” he told E&E News shortly after meeting with OSHA inspectors in early March, adding that he didn’t think his son “know what he was walking into.”

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