Worker dies after hydrogen sulfide leak at oil well site

A hydrogen sulfide leak at a northern Alberta oil well site killed one worker on Saturday. Several other people, including a Mountie at a roadblock, were injured after inhaling the deadly gas.

FOX CREEK — A hydrogen sulfide leak at a northern Alberta oil well site killed one worker on Saturday.

Several other people, including a Mountie at a roadblock, were injured after inhaling the deadly gas.

RCMP say three workers were doing maintenance work on a gas line off Highway 47 near Fox Creek on Saturday evening when hydrogen sulfide began to leak.

Two of the workers were exposed, but the third was far enough away that he could get assistance for his colleagues.

Firefighters from Fox Creek donned breathing packs and were able to get the two workers out, but one of the workers died at the scene.

The other was taken to hospital in Fox Creek.

RCMP say one of their officers was conducting a road block some distance away when he also breathed in some of the gas, and is now being treated in hospital.

“The facility and the pipeline have been shut in, and air monitoring is on site as well, so there’s been no further impact to the public on this matter,” said Darin Barter, a spokesman for the Energy Resources Conservation Board.

An investigation by the board and officials with Alberta Occupational Health and Safety is underway, he said.

Hydrogen sulfide is extremely toxic and occurs in natural gas as a result of decaying organic matter that contains sulphur.

Its rotten-egg smell is easily detected at low concentrations, but at higher levels can paralyse the olfactory nerves, meaning a person in the most danger cannot smell it.

Tracey Kipta, a spokesperson with Alberta Occupational Health and Safety, said the worker was an employee of Celtic Exploration and that’s it’s believed he and the other workers were attempting to melt an ice chunk in the pipeline using a process called “steaming.”

Kipta explained that the process involved the workers using steam wands which they ran over the outside surface of the pipeline.

The site, she said, is now shut down.

“That means no work will continue and no one will be allowed back on site until the investigation is complete,” Kipta said.

RCMP in Fox Creek said the area was remote and that no one lived nearby, so the threat from the leak to the public was minimal.

The condition of the injured officer was also believed to be improving, police said on Sunday.

Ironically, the incident occurred on the same day Alberta’s employment and immigration ministry issued a news release announcing the province’s workplace injury rates were at a 20-year record low.

The province says its lost-time claim rate was 1.41 injuries for every 100 full-time jobs in 2010, down from 4.13 in 1991. The disabling injury rate also fell in 2010 from the year before.

But the province also says its workplace fatality rate jumped 24 per cent in 2010 from the year before, although it was down from the rate in 2008.

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