Local News

Wednesday, Jun 22 2011 10:20 PM

Rescuers retrieve oil worker's body from sinkhole

BY JOHN COX, Californian staff writer jcox@bakersfield.com

The worker who fell into a sinkhole in an oil field west of Taft on Tuesday and died "fell several feet below ground level into a hole that contained steam and hot water," a Chevron spokeswoman said Wednesday as new details emerged about the incident.

Never before had Chevron experienced such a situation, spokeswoman Carla Musser wrote in an email, adding that the company extends its condolences to the family of the man who died.

An autopsy was scheduled for Wednesday but no findings, including the man's identity, had been released by Wednesday night.

The body of the veteran oil field construction representative had been retrieved Wednesday morning after what Chevron said was a 17-hour effort prolonged by difficult site conditions.

Chevron and a spokesman for the county Fire Department said the accident happened at about 10:50 a.m. Tuesday when the man and three other workers were doing routine work off Midoil Road in the Midway Sunset oil field.

"As the employees walked through the site, the ground beneath one employee gave way," Musser wrote in an email. "The employee fell several feet below ground level into a hole that contained steam and hot water. Efforts to help the fallen employee were not successful."

Cal-OSHA indicated Tuesday that it has begun an investigation. An agency spokeswoman was unavailable to provide an update Wednesday.

Some people in the oil industry wondered Wednesday whether the sinkhole may have resulted from the use of steam injection, a decades-old oil recovery pioneered in Kern County.

Taft oilman Bruce Holmes said the diatomaceous soil beneath Midway Sunset has the potential to collapse amid steam injection operations. He likened the situation to sucking the honey out of a honeycomb: The more you remove, the less stable the structure.

To reduce the possibility of a collapse, he said, oil producers in the Taft area monitor the ground using advanced technology.

"They monitor it pretty closely," he said.

Musser said Chevron employs various technologies to make sure the ground is stable when using steam in an oil field.

"Chevron is working to mitigate and managed ground stability using sophisticated tools such as tiltmeters, acoustic sensors, electrical monitors, satellite surveys, and sound operational practices," she wrote.

She added that the company has no information that sinkholes have ever occurred in the area.

A spokesman for the agency that regulates California oil production, the Department of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, said Tuesday's accident appeared to be unique.

"While there are surface expressions of steam injection, we have never before seen anything that seemed to pose such an imminent threat to life and limb as this situation," spokesman Don Drysdale said.

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