Why Do Oil Tanks Explode?Oil storage tanks are used during different stages of oil production. They can hold crude or refined product, and can be pressurized or not. The one thing all tanks have in common is that, if defective or left unmaintained, they can pose a serious risk to workers and non-workers alike.

Canadian Occupational Safety recently reported that several workers were injured due to an explosion and fire that occurred at a crude oil tank farm near Edmonton. The explosion happened at SECURE Energy’s Elk Point facility on a Saturday afternoon. Thirty-five firefighters from several local departments, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and others were called in to respond to the explosion. Fortunately, there do not appear to be any fatalities. According to the Reeve of the County of Two Hills Don Gulayec, “Basically, you’re dealing with a tank farm that holds hydrocarbon material, and they are all on fire. It’s huge. The thing is you don’t know what the potential for an explosion or things like that are,” said Gulayec [emphasis added].

You don’t know what the potential for an explosion is. Oil tanks can easily ignite with one spark, causing devastation to any workers or any members of the public who are near the oil tank.

Are oil tank explosions common?

It depends on how you define “common.” Are they as common as car accidents? Certainly not. But just because oil tanks aren’t exploding all over the country every day does not mean there is no risk, or that this risk should be ignored. Earlier this year, 14 tanks in New Town, ND went up in flames because of a tank battery explosion.

And this is just one specific example. Wastewater tanks from fracking and asphalt tanks are also at risk of explosion; all it takes is one spark.

What is being done to protect people from oil tank explosions?

When a 2010 oil tank explosion in Mississippi took several lives, advocates started lobbying for stronger oil tank safety regulations. Oil tank explosion accidents are often caused “when a spark — from a cigarette, a firework or a gun — meets the oil and natural gas vapors released through a hatch in a tank’s roof.” The explosions are so strong that the bodies of the victims can be found several hundred feet away from the tank.

Much of the oil tank safety regulation, according to the American Petroleum Institute, was and is designed to protect workers. (Back in 2010, there weren’t any regulations to protect the general public from entering oil tank sites.) Advocates for more safety regulations want tank owners to be required to build fences and post warning signs around their oil tanks.

The Chemical Safety Board hopes that videos about the dangers of entering oil tank sites can be targeted to high school students in rural schools throughout the country. The explosion in Mississippi killed several high school students. The students went to the site to shoot deer and “jump off the ledge into the mud pits.”

Safety factors for oil tanks

Companies need to consider numerous factors in choosing the right oil tank for their needs, including safety features to prevent the tank from overflowing and the locations of the tanks. As Croft Systems explains, “Oil tanks are usually designed and used in groups, called tank batteries. The placement of the tank battery is important to make sure that that there is adequate spacing between tanks and the proximity to any hazardous material is considered.”

Tank batteries must comply with flammable and combustible liquids codes. NFPA 30 (published by the National Fire Protection Association) provides safety protocols “to reduce the hazards associated with the storage, handling and use of flammable and combustible liquids.” NFPA 30 is enforceable under building and fire prevention codes in many states – including North Dakota.

The American Petroleum Institute also has standards and guidelines for oil and gas equipment. There are different certification requirements for different types of oil tanks. The standards apply to the manufacture, inspection, and maintenance of oil storage tanks.

What damages can non-employees and passersby claim?

Any workers who are contractors and any non-workers can file a personal injury claim if they are injured due to an oil tank explosion. The families of any non-employee, such as the parents of the teenagers killed in the Mississippi explosion, can file a wrongful death claim if a loved one is killed due to an explosion.

In personal injury cases, the victims can seek compensation for all their medical expenses, lost income, their pain and suffering, and any scarring or disfigurement. Common non-fatal injuries due to an oil tank explosion include:

  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Spinal cord damage
  • Broken bones
  • Internal organ damage
  • Respiratory disorders
  • Severe burn injuries which may require skin grafts and plastic surgery

In wrongful death cases, the families can seek compensation for the funeral bills, the loss of income the decedent would have provided the family members, the pain and suffering of the decedent before he/she died, the loss of society and companionship of the decedent, and other damages permitted by North Dakota law.

Why should the owners of the oil tanks and oil facilities be found liable?

There are several ways we seek to hold oil tank owners and operators liable:

  • Negligence claims. Victims generally can argue that the oil field company in charge of the site, any company that owned or maintained the tank, and other businesses and people were negligent. We work with industry experts who understand what state and federal regulations govern oil tanks, and what industry standards are used to reduce the risk of explosions and manage the explosions when they occur. We work to show that the oil site owner and any other responsible companies failed to comply with these regulations and standards.
  • Premises liability. These are a form of negligence claims. Oil site property owners may be also liable if children are injured because of the “attractive nuisance” doctrine, which requires the owners to secure their sites from inquisitive minors. A 14-year-old girl was killed in Louisiana this year when a tank she was sitting on exploded. The size and shape of these tanks makes them attractive to kids, and if those children are young enough – and the tank owners do not make every attempt to keep children out – their parents may have a premises liability claim.
  • Product liability claims. Victims may also have a product liability lawsuit against the manufacturer of the oil tank if the oil tank was defective. Defects include faulty design, improper workmanship, failure to provide warnings, unclear usage instructions, and other defects.

Even employees can file a product liability claim. Employees may also be able to file a personal injury claim in egregious cases such as where the owner of the tank or facility was aware of a danger and failed to use proper safety measures.

Victims may also seek punitive damages. When the responsible parties fail to monitor known dangers of toxic hydrocarbon gases, they can be ordered to pay punitive damages. Punitive damages are meant to punish the wrongdoers, and to ensure the wrongdoers understand they need to take corrective measures to prevent future oil tank explosions.

Larson Law Firm, PC has been fighting for oil field workers and personal injury victims for decades. We work to show that that the responsible defendants were negligent, or that the tanks were defective. We also work with your physicians to show what injuries you have, and why they’re so devastating. We seek compensation for all your financial and emotional losses. We represent oil tank explosions victims and their families in Minot, Bismarck, Fargo, and across North Dakota. Contact us today at 701-484-HURT, or use our contact form to make an appointment.