School's hydrogen sulfide scare brings attention to oilfield safety
Apr 13, 2012 (Odessa American - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
ODESSA, Texas -- Following reports of a possible hydrogen sulfide leak at Jordan Elementary School, Railroad Commission of Texas officials are inspecting a work-over rig near the school.
Sue Hannaman, RRC assistant district director in Midland, said the railroad commission's oil and gas division will inspect the rig and make sure operations are correct.
The work-over, or maintenance, rig is at least 50 yards away from the school and was put up about one month ago, Jordan Elementary Principal Mary Sanchez said.
Sanchez said she did not have any major concerns when she first saw the rig established, however Jordan Elementary was put on shelter-in-place around noon Wednesday after a teacher reported she smelled an odor outside and a possible hydrogen sulfide or H2S leak.
Dispatch confirmed that they received a phone call at 11:47 a.m. Wednesday of reports of a gas smell.
Ector County Independent School District Police were notified, as was the operator of the rig, Windsor Energy Permian, Sanchez said.
Students were brought back inside, while Odessa Fire/Rescue emergency personnel conducted an air analysis and found no signs of chemical leaks, Sanchez said. The school was on shelter-in-place from 11:53 a.m. to 11:59 a.m., ECISD spokesman Mike Adkins said.
"A lot of safety precautions were put in place so our students were safe," Sanchez said. "Other than the smell, it was a typical school day."
Adkins said although the smell of gas is common in town, Jordan Elementary officials took preventative measures due to the school's proximity to an oil well. Windsor Energy's work-over rig is at least 50 yards away from the back of the school's playground, which is fenced in.
"Because they're so close to a drill site, you have to have precaution," Adkins said.
Sanchez said she has also not heard from any parents expressing concerns for work-over rig near the school.
The north Odessa neighborhood was also recently in contention with Virgil Trower and Associates for a possible drill reservation to be established near 94th Street and Rainbow Drive.
Some neighbors contested the area's possible rezoning to a drill reservation, because of concerns of potential H2S leaks.
Ninety-fifth Street resident Susan Stricklin gathered 71 signatures in a petition against the drill reservation before the rezoning request was dropped by Trower.
Ellie Carrasco, who has two children attending Jordan Elementary, signed the petition and said she wants oil companies to take families into consideration when choosing drilling locations.
"I don't mind that we drill, but it's just so close," Carrasco said. "There's housing, schools, families."
Because the oil well behind Jordan Elementary is outside city limits, well operators did not have to request zoning on the property or notify the Odessa City Council.
Railroad Commission of Texas' Oil and Gas Division also does not have any statewide mandates regarding an oil well's location in proximity to a residential area.
"We don't have rules that require any setbacks of wells from structures or buildings," RRC spokeswoman Ramona Nye said.
Though residents like Stricklin are concerned of potential H2S leaks from oil wells in their neighborhood, Nye said the risk of a chemical leak or a well blowout (where the well becomes uncontrollable) is rare.
In 2011, only 20 reports of blowouts and well problems were reported to the RCC, only three involved gas leaks. There were no reports of H2S leaks last year.
Nye said leaks are rare because wells are required to be constructed to prevent leaks, with several layers of casing and cement surrounding the oil well.
Rigs are also outfitted with H2S detection monitors for worker safety, Nye said.
If there is a major leak, you may be passed out before you even notice it, said J. Michael Robinson, chemistry professor at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin.
"You can be incapacitated in half a minute if it's very strong," Robinson said. "By the time you realize you smelled it, you (could be) passed out."
However, Robinson said that most occurrences of the H2S in the air are traces of the gas, too small of an amount to be dangerous.
"(It's) just traces we can smell. They might smell it but that doesn't mean it's a totally unsafe area," Robinson said. "It's produced in a lot of formations, naturally occurring."
H2S does become undetectable to the olfactory senses after a period of time, but Robinson said electronic chemical sensors at oil sites are able to keep the sites safe.
"Electronic chemical sensors are part of safety operations," Robinson said. "They have different ways to overcome that. If they have to, worst-case scenario is they have to flare gas."
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