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Investigators: Cutting torch ignited explosion of oil tanks with sludge still inside

Jordan Overturf | The Eagle (Bryan, Texas)

The contractor injured in Wednesday’s petroleum-tank fire in Robertson County was using a cutting torch to remove bolts from a catwalk on top of the 12,000-gallon tank when it exploded with oil sludge still inside, according to Texas Railroad Commission investigators.

The TRRC report, which was obtained by The Eagle, details witness accounts of the afternoon fire at Cazey well No. 2, three-and-a-half miles northeast of Franklin. The sub-contractor’s employee was “thrown clear of the tanks by the blast,” the inspector wrote.

The man, who is in critical condition at Memorial Hermann Hospital in Houston, was wearing a safety harness at the time of the blast. The safety line pulled him back toward the tank, slamming him face-first into the side of the hot steel wall, the report said. After dangling unconscious in his harness for a few seconds, the fire burned through a strap and the man fell to the ground, allowing witnesses to pull him to safety.

The well’s owner, Tom Finaly, president of Finaly Resources LLC in California, said he was at the site Wednesday overseeing two crews — one hired to plug the well with cement and the other, Franklin-based J-Bar Services, hired to dismantle and remove the storage tanks.

“This was a freak accident,” Finaly said.

The California businessman has worked in the oil and gas industry for 10 years and said he currently owns more than 65 wells in Texas.

“I’ve never seen anything like this happen,” he said, adding that this was the second time he had contracted J-Bar Services to remove a tank.

Finaly spoke to inspectors, who wrote in the report that the two tanks were empty except for “approximately 8 inches of oil sludge in the bottom of each tank.” That equates to more than 1,100 gallons combined — enough to fill up two box trailers on a semi-truck.

“It was unknown if the sub-contractor knew this or vented the tanks,” according to the inspector.

Related: Tank explosion rocks Robertson County, critically injures worker

TRRC regulations state that the owner of the well, not the owner of the land, is responsible for clearing all the equipment and sealing the well when it is abandoned.

Nathan Philipello, the landowner and a Franklin resident, said he purchased the land in March for agricultural purposes. In a brief interview on Thursday, Philipello said he had been working with Finaly Resources to get the tanks and rig cleared so he could begin to farm the 196 acres of land. The well sat dormant since 2004, according to the TRRC.

TRRC records show Finaly filed to shutter the well on May 19 and was approved by the District 3 director four days later. A TRRC spokesperson confirmed that an inspector went to the well on Tuesday to oversee a crew from Tombstone Coil Tubing Services Inc,, a Lago Vista-based company.

The plugging of a well, in this case a borehole, is regulated by the TRRC and the company must be an approved vendor.

The usage of petroleum storage tanks is regulated by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, and crews hired to dismantle and transport the tanks do not require pre-approval.

Witnesses reported hearing both tanks explode at close intervals around noon on Wednesday. The five local fire departments that responded chose to let the sludge burn until the arrival of industrial emergency specialists from Williams Fire and Hazard Control. The report said it took a little over an hour to extinguish the fire, finally cutting off the black pillars of smoke that the inspector said were visible for several miles.

Officials from the fire departments declared the site a safe area Wednesday afternoon. Finaly said on Thursday that the plugging and dismantling work is moving forward.

Finaly said he spoke with John Lutz Jr., operator of J-Bar Services, on Wednesday and hadn’t heard any more details about the condition of the contractor, who had to be flown to the hospital by helicopter. Attempts to reach Lutz at his home were unsuccessful.

This was the first fire at a well location in Texas this year, with only three being reported in 2013, according to data from the TRRC. The last time fire crews were called to a well in Robertson County was Aug. 9, 2007, when the rig light caused dry gas to catch fire. No injuries were reported in that incident, which occurred at an Encana Oil & Gas well, according to the incident recap.

The TRRC inspection said the Robertson County Sheriff’s Office is conducting its own investigation into the fire, with no other local or federal agencies listed.