At about 9 p.m. on August 12, contractors employed by Houston-based company L-Con were working on one of the main lines in Sunoco Pipeline LP's Nederland terminal when crude oil burst through a plug that was supposed to hold the oil back in the pipeline and ignited, according to lawsuits filed by the contract workers.
The crew was working with a pipe about 30 inches wide, located in the central area of the pipeline terminal. Crude oil is toted through these lines to other pipelines or to tankers and rail cars that move the product to whoever is buying it. Because the line is so busy, doing “hot work,” which is welding in an area that has hydrocarbons nearby, can be really tricky.
In this case, a plug made by Carber Holdings was supposed to stop any hydrocarbons in the pipeline from getting near the welding torches. The plug is fitted into the line and then locked in place. It is guaranteed not to fail, according to lawyer Edward Fisher, who is representing some of the workers who were injured that night. Once a plug is in place workers can snap other pieces into the line and weld them together. The plug is designed to handle a huge amount of pressure, even the full strength of a pipeline that is up and running, Fisher says.
Before the workers cut into the pipe to install the plug, all of the valves that let material flow into the pipe were supposed to be closed. Then a vacuum truck is brought in to suck any leftover material out of the line so it will be as empty as possible. The plan was to add more intersections to the pipe to allow Sunoco to move more materials. The installation on the south end of the pipeline was done without incident. Then the workers sliced into the line on the north side, planning to install a new valve on that side as well.
There were four valves in the immediate area and all of them were supposed to be closed. The workers were on a scaffold about 10 feet tall, welding torches sparking fire as they worked to get the extensions of the line welded into place. As welding operations were in progress, pressure built up inside the line, according to court records. The Carber plug allegedly blew out, hitting one of the workers in the chest. The crude oil that had been held back by the plug ignited, causing a flash fire. The workers were knocked off the platform to the ground, suffering injuries from the fall and severe burns, according to the lawsuits.
Since then, at least three of the seven workers reportedly injured that night have filed lawsuits against both Sunoco and Carber. We've asked Carber for comment on this. We'll update with it as soon as we hear back.
Sunoco spokesman Jeff Shields stated via email that the investigation is ongoing, and thus the company is not commenting.
Edward Galvan was the first to file against the companies. Galvan was near one of the plugs when it supposedly failed, according to the lawsuit filed in state district court in Harris County. The force of the blast knocked off Galvan's welding mask and his face was “set ablaze” by the fire, according to the court documents.
Galvan is being represented by famed Houston attorney Tony Buzzbee and he's seeking $10 million or more, according to court documents.
Fisher, a lawyer with years of experience in workplace negligence lawsuits, is representing Juan Barboza and his brother Jose de Jesus Barboza in a lawsuit claiming negligence against Sunoco and Carber. The brothers were knocked off the platform and burned in the explosion and had to be flown by helicopter to Houston hospitals, according to the lawsuit. Fisher says he's asking for more than $1 million.
The incident is being investigated by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration and the Chemical Safety Board. However, both agencies are short on manpower and funding, OSHA can only fine up to $7,000 for the most serious offenses, and the CSB doesn't have any regulatory power at all. It will take months if not years for either agency to come out with any reports on the incident, Fisher says.
Meanwhile, it's clear based on federal records that Sunoco has dealt with these types of issues before. In fact there has been a steady series of incidents, leaks, fires and spills in recent years.
In 2005, the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration investigated and fined Sunoco $150,000 after a pipeline facility overfilled and released more than 10,000 barrels of crude oil in Pennsylvania. Then, in 2006, the federal regulators conducted an on-site pipeline safety inspection of Sunoco's records and facilities in both Oklahoma and Texas, ultimately fining the company $119,000 for 19 violations.
Two years later there were two more violations, resulting in a $40,000 fine. The next year there was a fire during repair work on the West Texas Gulf Pipeline System, which caused a spill of more than 3,400 barrels of crude oil and a $415,000 fine.
That wasn't the end of Sunoco's tango with federal regulators.
The Philadelphia-based company drew the ire of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration in 2015 when federal officials learned of an accident – previously unreported — that occurred while workers were performing pipeline modifications on the West Texas Gulf Pipeline Company, operated by Sunoco, on February 19, 2013 at the Wortham facilities.
During the work, there was a crude oil release and the oil ignited, sending at least one person to the hospital. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration only learned of the incident when the organization received a public information request.
Companies are required to give notice if hazardous materials are accidentally released and it causes an injury or death, or starts an unplanned fire. According to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, Sunoco didn't give initial notice of the accident or written notice of the accident, which is supposed to be submitted within 30 days.
As the agency continued to investigate, they also found Sunoco had made a number of mistakes leading up to the accident, according to the notice of probable violation and proposed compliance order issued last July. They found that Sunoco didn't follow written procedures, to verify employee qualifications or follow up on the accident after it occurred. Thus, one welder didn't have any operator qualifications and another one's qualifications had recently expired.
After the 2013 accident, Sunoco didn't review the incident with the involved employees to determine whether the procedures in place were enough to protect the workers. The company officials also failed to evaluate the employees before they went back to work – the valve the employees were installing before the fire was finished by those same employees a day later, according to the proposed compliance order. There wasn't a qualified inspector overseeing the work.
The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration also found that Sunoco wasn't following seven of its written procedures for “hot work” done at the station from fall 2012 through March 2013, just after the accident. And it didn't stop there. The company also wasn't following nine of the procedures for issuing work permits to the site, about 12 of the steps for a lockout program and eight written operator qualification program requirements, according to the proposed compliance order.
Sunoco didn't seem to have done much of its own investigating, in fact. They only gave the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration officials an incomplete and inconclusive report on the incident, according to the proposed compliance order.
We asked Shields about the 2009 and 2013 incidents. "Those incidents are still being adjudicated, so we would not comment," Shields replied.
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On top of all of this, the regulators pointed out that the 2013 accident wasn't the first time Sunoco had found itself in this situation. There had been a similar accident while workers were doing similar maintenance work on a different Texas pipeline terminal in 2009. “Failure to identify the root cause of the 2009 accident allowed the recurrence of the same type of accident in 2013,” the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration notice states.
In July, after more than a year investigating, federal regulators proposed a $1.5 million civil penalty to the company for the unreported 2013 incident.
And then, just over a month later, there's another flash fire, one that Fisher says should have been easily prevented.
“Everyday steelworkers and welders go in and perform maintenance work on a pipe or expanding these pipeline structures,” Fisher says. “At this point, we've been doing this for years and we know how to do it safely so it should be done safely, but there are too many incidents still where people are burned severely or killed. It doesn't have to happen.”