The Deadly Smell of Success
Meet the invisible fellow traveler in the search for more energy: poisonous gas.
Outside the aging brick building that houses the Denver City Police Department, a chilly and wet February drizzle was transforming red West Texas dirt on a highway patrol car to red West Texas mud. The steady drizzle, a welcome reprieve from blowing New Mexico grit, fell on quiet, deserted Sunday morning streets, lessening the pervasive stench from the miles and miles of oil fields encircling the flat town. Visitors, say the local folks, are the only ones who ever complain about the smell. That’s the smell of money, they’ll tell you. You’ll get used to it, they say.
This Sunday morning—February 2, 1975—the cars and pickups with gun racks in rear windows that normally angle-park along the streets were parked in church parking lots. The night police dispatcher had already headed home, probably to yield to the sleep normally fended off with the help of notoriously bad jailhouse coffee and infrequent Saturday night nuisance calls. But the extra cars in front of the police station, the highway patrol sergeant leaning on the cigarette machine, and backpacks of oxygen tanks piled haphazardly in the middle of the floor were indications that this particular night shift had experienced no problems staying awake.
It had been only a few hours earlier, about 5:15 a.m., when patrolman James Tucker received a frantic call from a near-hysterical woman. She identified herself as Mrs. J. C. Patton, then told Tucker she and her family were about to be killed by leaking gas. The two men who now silently sipped coffee in the police lobby and several others headed for the Pattons’ modest frame farmhouse about 3½ miles northeast of Denver City. Speeding along the slick county road, they came upon a pickup truck that had veered into a narrow ditch. Inside, slumped over the steering wheel, was nineteen-year-old Steve Sparger, erstwhile Denver City High School football and basketball hero and more recently husband, father, employee of Atlantic Richfield, and dead.
Sparger, a “well runner,” or night troubleshooter, had himself been en route to the Patton house to investigate the leaking gas. He apparently realized he had driven into a lethal gas cloud and shifted the pickup into reverse. Investigators theorized he was overcome by the gas, lost control of the pickup, veered into the ditch, and choked to death.
A half-mile up the muddy road, the scene at the Patton farmhouse was worse. Seven bodies, most of them wearing only bed clothes, were found in a car and a pickup beside the house. Another man was lying in the rainy red ooze outdoors. Dead were seven members of the Patton family who had assembled for a weekend family reunion— husband, wife, seventeen-year-old daughter and her overnight guest, and Mrs. Patton’s mother and sister and their husbands. Inside the house, beds were rumpled and furniture overturned. Everything indicated a frantic, futile flight for safety. Searchers looking for other victims found scenes reminiscent of a science fiction film. The same silent, unseen killer that had stalked nine persons also left lifeless bodies of coyotes, chickens, rabbits, birds, dogs, cats, even a donkey, littered in a wide kill zone around the house.
Fifty yards away, the Tom Merrills and their two children managed to escape after a terror-filled, high-speed trip during which Mrs. Merrill finally slumped over her husband, pushing his foot on the accelerator and sending the car swerving from ditch to ditch. The Merrills’ desperate flight to Yoakum County Hospital in Denver City where Mrs. Merrill was hospitalized almost certainly took them careening past young Sparger’s pickup on the county road. A dead dog and cat in the Merrill house bore mute testimony to the fate awaiting the Merrills had not Mrs. Merrill shaken her husband awake after smelling an odor like rotten eggs.
It didn’t take rescuers long to find the source of the deadly cloud of gas that had moved along the ground in predawn darkness. About 150 yards from the Patton house, escaping carbon dioxide gas had condensed around the leak on an experimental gas injection well, forming a massive chunk of ice. But what wasn’t visible, and what had accounted for the deaths, was a small amount of hydrogen sulfide gas mixed in with the carbon dioxide. Atlantic Richfield (ARCO) officials, in a release subsequently distributed by Department of Public Safety officers to the press, said the injection well contained 95 per cent carbon dioxide, 4 per cent hydrogen sulfide, and 1 per cent miscellaneous gases. The small amount of hydrogen sulfide was the killer.
Hydrogen sulfide has three lethal properties which make it frighteningly efficient: it acts rapidly, it paralyzes the respiratory center, and it works in concentrations as small as 500 parts per million. Concentrations above 700 ppm produce immediate unconsciousness and death within minutes. The only escape for a person endangered by hydrogen sulfide is to hold his breath and try to get out of the deadly, invisible cloud. The rotten-egg odor can be a warning (hydrogen sulfide can be detected in concentrations as low as 0.13 parts per million), but you can’t be sure when you’re safe because the gas rapidly fatigues the sense of smell. In short, the only sure remedy for hydrogen sulfide inhalation is to stay away from it, but for more and more people in West Texas, this is becoming an impossibility. One modern method of recovering oil relies heavily on injecting gas into an underground reservoir to put oil under pressure and force it into a well. That gas usually includes lethal doses of hydrogen sulfide. Every time there is a leak, lives will be in danger, perhaps hundreds of lives: many of these injection wells are near population centers.
One month after the Denver City tragedy, more than 100 representatives of major oil companies met for a Texas Railroad Commission hearing on hydrogen sulfide at the State Highway Building in Austin. It was obvious that they were reluctant participants. The atmosphere was not unlike a mandatory meeting between a football coach and his team to find out who dropped the ball and why. The oil men in the padded chairs of the hearing room were there because of what happened at Denver City. And many feared, dreaded in fact, any added Railroad Commission regulations which would put additional controls on their industry. My God, one said, they already had OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration, a division of the U.S. Department of Labor) inspectors looking over their shoulders at every move.
The threat of additional regulation was heightened by a legislative resolution being considered at the same time a block away at the Capitol. The author of the resolution, Representative E. L. Short of Tahoka, endorsed the Railroad Commission’s investigation into oil field safety procedures. Short, whose district includes Denver City and other oil-rich West Texas communities, wanted the commission to go to every house located near injection wells, “knocking on doors if necessary,” to warn residents of the potential dangers of hydrogen sulfide gas. “If those folks in Denver City had had some warning,” he said, “they might have been able to escape.”
Perhaps, but probably not. By the time you discover the gas, it can be too late to run. Highway Patrolman Foy Goldston, not long out of DPS academy, but with the benefit of a crash course in hydrogen sulfide dangers, said shortly after the tragedy: “Generally, two breaths is all anyone ever gets.” A pathologist agrees. “If the concentration is enough, you don’t live long enough to have a reaction. H2S [the chemical symbol for the gas] comes as a wave and hangs low since it’s a heavy gas. It’s like an invisible pool of water. If you are trapped in it, you die. You’re rendered so incapable of taking care of yourself that you can’t react in a normal manner.
“When three or four workers in a Kentucky plastics factory died as a result of lung tumors, it created all sorts of government reaction.” The pathologist added, “I don’t know why this hasn’t; it’s a hellishly larger problem.”
Short’s resolution was precipitated by the Denver City tragedy, but it came at a time when hydrogen sulfide was taking its toll in other West Texas areas. Six oil field workers, four of them employees of Gulf, were killed December 1 while they tried to repair a leaking crude oil transmission line near Abilene. A pathologist said four of them died after inhaling hydrogen sulfide. The other two apparently were overcome by the fumes, falling face first into a pool of oil. Judging from the amount of oil in their lungs, the doctor said they probably had drowned. Two AMOCO employees died October 1 near Sundown in far West Texas as they cleaned a heater treater vessel (which separates gas from liquid coming out of the ground). That made seventeen deaths in four months in West Texas alone. But hydrogen sulfide’s credentials as a killer are as lengthy as the history of the Texas oil industry. Oil workers—who regard hydrogen sulfide as an occupational hazard in much the same manner as coal miners view black-lung disease—say nearly all West Texas oil and gas is “sour,” meaning it contains hydrogen sulfide as an impurity. As long as oil is pumped from West Texas, they claim there’ll be hydrogen sulfide—and the threat of death.
Old hands in the oil fields can recall almost as many H2S stories as there are war stories at American Legion halls. A crop duster near Seminole in 1964 spotted four bodies on the ground near a leaking transmission line. One of the bodies was his father. The same year, a man in a pickup truck drove into a low section of the highway near Andrews that was filled with hydrogen sulfide. He died in that dip in the highway. Two others attempting to rescue him also died.
The five hours of testimony from oil company representatives were filled with assurances and guarantees. Yes, hydrogen sulfide is dangerous. Yes, unfortunately, seventeen persons have been killed in four months. But, oil companies have been as careful as possible in handling the gas in the past and, of course, will continue to be careful in the future. “There are going to be some risks in this endeavor,” said influential Midland attorney Tom Sealy, representing ARCO, which operated the leaking Denver City well. Then he attempted an analogy to the three astronauts who died in a space program mishap. “But ARCO is making every effort to minimize dangers,” he concluded. (The OSHA regional office in Lubbock apparently didn’t think so. It assessed ARCO $1125 in civil penalties for violations related to the death of Sparger, the Denver City well runner, including inadequate training of employees, inadequate respiratory equipment, and ineffective monitoring equipment. And in Dallas, six survivors of the Patton family have filed a $1-million lawsuit against ARCO.)
The Texas Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, the industry trade association and lobby, came up with an unremarkable recommendation which calls for warning residents of the potential danger they’re living near. The association also endorsed a reevaluation of emergency contingency plans. But the tenor of the hearing was best summarized by two Houston oil company representatives as they hurried from the hearing room to catch an early flight home. “I don’t know what, if anything, we’ve accomplished here today,” said one. His colleague: “Probably not a goddamn thing, but maybe it’ll be enough to keep the press off our ass.”
The gas injection well near Denver City that ruptured February 2—called by some in the industry “the worst oil field-related tragedy in recent years”—adds a terrifying new dimension to an already uncontrollable danger. The nine deaths were different from most hydrogen sulfide deaths because the gas leaked from an operation which deliberately injected it into the ground. In the past, deaths normally resulted from leaking pipelines or storage tanks. Too, most previous victims had been oil company employees who had at least some knowledge of the dangers inherent in their jobs. Of the Denver City victims, only young Sparger worked for an oil company. J. C. Patton was a farmer. His only connection with oil was living 150 yards from the experimental injection project that killed him.
Gas injection is being used in multimillion dollar pilot projects throughout West Texas to coax yet a third crop of oil from beneath the surface. It is a last-ditch effort to recover oil and gas that have eluded conventional recovery methods like drilling (primary recovery) and water flooding of the underground reservoir (secondary recovery). Gas injection (tertiary recovery) is not a new development in the oil industry, but its ultimate effectiveness remains unproven, and some scientists believe it will be at least another decade before the process can be properly evaluated. Among the current problems are shortages in materials (some of the gases which are most effective, like propane, butane, and ethane, are relatively scarce); an undeveloped technology (researchers have yet to agree on which of several tertiary techniques is most effective); and the high cost of gas injection, which became economically feasible only since the price of oil has risen so dramatically.
The stakes are high. AMOCO experts testified before the Railroad Commission that gas injection could result in the recovery of almost two billion barrels of West Texas oil from AMOCO-operated properties alone. Total potential recovery from all West Texas sources could total seven to eight billion barrels. That’s only about two billion barrels less than the widely ballyhooed North Slope discovery in Alaska.
The crucial question is what kind of gas will be used for injections. One large operation near Snyder uses “scrubbed,” or filtered gas containing only carbon dioxide, a nontoxic gas. Most pilot projects, however, use waste gas without scrubbing out the hydrogen sulfide. The reason is simple: they say scrubbing costs too much money. “The initial cost for constructing a scrubbing plant, such as an amine plant, would run between a half million and one million dollars. Then you have to add on operational costs which shoots it even higher,” said a high executive of one large Texas oil company. Industry spokesmen say filtering won’t be economically feasible until the results of the pilot program are known.
The leaking gas injection well at Denver City had operated without a mishap for about two years. “We knew the hydrogen sulfide was there and felt we could inject it safely,” says Carter Barcus of ARCO’s Dallas headquarters. “We weren’t going to scrub it until we found out whether the pilot project worked.” Does that mean ARCO will filter out the hydrogen sulfide if the pilot program is successful. “Certainly I would like to say we will, but quite frankly, I don’t know.”
AMOCO currently is readying four gas injection projects in West Texas similar to the one in Denver City. According to Amoco Torch, the company’s house organ, there undoubtedly will be more. “Despite the negatives, nearly everyone is convinced that the overriding need for more, domestic petroleum will cause tertiary projects to blossom across the nation, and higher crude prices will make them possible.”
Economics is an obvious force as high OPEC crude prices encourage oil companies to get the most from diminishing domestic oil reserves. But equally obvious, at least to some people in the industry, is the inherent risk of gas injection systems using gas laced with hydrogen sulfide. “They know it’s wrong to do this,” said a loss prevention specialist for a major insurance company servicing oil company accounts. “Waste gas should be scrubbed and cleaned to get rid of hydrogen sulfide. Hydrogen sulfide is concentrated. You’ve already got hydrogen sulfide in a well as an impurity and you shouldn’t inject any more of it into a well. You’re just multiplying a hazard already there.”
The question, according to one petroleum engineer, is not whether H2S should be used, but whether it can be used wisely and safely. “Hydrogen sulfide is corrosive as hell, particularly when it’s put under pressure,” says Houston Legislator Milton Fox, a petroleum engineer. “It will crystallize steel in just a short time.” Meanwhile, oil company experts admit they haven’t found a material strong enough to resist those corrosive effects. It was a microscopic leak in the Denver City system which allowed the gas to escape. J. H. Sullivan, the engineer who wrote the specifications for the system, testified in Austin that the fitting which failed had been used safely twice before. He said ARCO spent “an additional $100,000 in research just to be on the safe side.”
“It’s a recognized method of recovery,” says chief engineer Arthur H. Barbeck of the Railroad Commission’s oil and gas division. “If it’s got some bugs in it, they need to be ironed out.” But the three elected commissioners have yet to require scrubbing or to adopt any other guidelines on the use of hydrogen sulfide. Neither has the legislature. “Scrubbing hydrogen sulfide out of the gas is extremely expensive,” says Fox, the legislator-engineer. “If we come up with some half-baked legislation saying everybody has to sweeten the gas in West Texas, we’d just shut production down.”
There was a time last year when many of Sundown’s 1200 residents began tasting oil in their water. Then they noticed oily rings in their bathtubs when they let the water drain out. Their coffee didn’t taste right, they said. Oil from the pumping units that surround the small West Texas community apparently was seeping into the city’s water wells. Officials from the State Department of Health and the Railroad Commission investigated the situation and eventually remedied it. But before a solution was found, an oil company employee drinking coffee at the Supreme Restaurant on Slaughter Street said if it had to come down to a choice—water or oil—he’d have to go with the oil.
The oil influence in this Hockley County town is obvious. Farm Road 303 is lined on both sides with pump jacks, resembling huge prehistoric birds dipping their beaks into the flat sand. By the time FM 303 makes it to the city limits sign, it becomes Slaughter Street, named for the sprawling oil field that provides the nucleus for Sundown’s economy. Slaughter Street is lined with oil well servicing companies, oil field trucking firms, and oil supply companies. At any given hour, the men who frequent the Supreme Restaurant will be wearing khaki uniforms with emblems of the nation’s largest oil companies. East of the flat-topped cafe is the football field where the Sundown Roughnecks play their home games. Next to the field is a producing well.
A few blocks north of the Supreme, on a bulletin board in the foyer of the city hall, is a clipping from The Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. Above the headline—“17 Area Deaths Laid To ‘Hellish’ Gas”—someone has written: “What do you think should be done?” The question is particularly appropriate for Sundown because one of AMOCO’s four gas injection pilots is being readied for operation just outside the city limits. The $2-million project, scheduled for operation by late spring, is similar to the one near Denver City. At its closest point, the pipeline passes within a mile of Sundown. The line will carry waste gas containing as much as 28 per cent hydrogen sulfide, a concentration seven times as great as the death-dealing gas at Denver City. AMOCO maintains that the injection system could force another 100 million barrels of oil from the Slaughter Field alone.
For Sundown residents who are edgy after reading of the fate of their neighbors 50 miles away, AMOCO points out the seven-mile pipeline will contain 61 corrosion monitors and 18 electronic sensor devices to detect hydrogen sulfide leaks. The company says a leak will activate a loud horn and warning lights, and the system would automatically shut down. The pipeline will have safety devices where it passes beneath FM 301 and FM 303. Company spokesmen say the line took six times longer than usual to complete because of rigid safety requirements which included x-rays of each weld coupling in the line, anticorrosion covering, and cathodic wiring to prevent corrosion.
But for residents of Sundown, the new gas injection system poses an interesting paradox. Oil company employees are a loyal bunch. They are understandably tight-lipped about everything that would jeopardize their jobs or hurt their employers. Nevertheless, one longtime oil company worker was leery about the safety of the Sundown project, especially after the Denver City tragedy. “I may not have a college education, but I’ve been in these damn oil fields long enough to know what’s going on. I think they’re compressing that gas too close to the plant,” he said with a dubious shake of his head. “Why there, so close to the plant? It’s just not good sense.” He says several other employees feel the same way, but won’t voice their fears. “I’ll tell you one thing. I wouldn’t have that monitor’s job—no matter what they’re paying him.”
One woman, whose house is one of the closest to the new pipeline, typifies the muted concern of the town. “My husband used to work for the oil company and we’ve still got relatives who do,” she said, jabbing a finger south toward the pipeline and the red dirt concealing it. “They’ve been good to us and, well, that’s our livelihood. But at the same time, we sure do hate to think of what happened to those folks in Denver City.”
“You can’t stop pumping oil and gas,” said a well serviceman over a cup of coffee. “As long as you take oil and gas from West Texas you’re going to have some hydrogen sulfide in it. Hell, I guess it’s one of those situations where you’re damned if you do and really damned if you don’t.”
Meanwhile, the only visible hints of the pipeline’s existence, and the controversy that surrounds it, are signs where the line passes beneath FM 301 and FM 303:
CAUTION—BURIED LINE: POISONOUS GAS