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Year later, California oil regulators unsure what caused worker death

May 21, 2012 |  2:04 pm

Nearly a year after a Kern County oil worker was sucked underground and boiled to death, state regulators still don’t know what caused the accident and have outsourced the investigation to two leading oil companies.

On Monday, the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources released a report simply outlining the circumstances of the worker’s death and subsequent oil spills in the oil field where Chevron and another operator, TRC Operating Co., used an extraction technique called cyclic steaming, in which a rush of steam fractures and heats the ground to loosen crude deposits.

Regulators detailed possible causes, including damaged well casings and previous steam injection, but said the definitive answers would be provided by the oil companies after they did more testing.

According to the agency’s report, Robert David Taylor and two Chevron co-workers were walking in a Kern County oil field last June when they observed a plume of steam coming from the ground.

As they moved closer, the earth opened up and swallowed Taylor. Immersed in a cauldron of oil fluids, he yelled for help as a co-worker tried to reach him -- first by hand, then with a piece of pipe.

His body was recovered 17 hours later.

Among the agency’s key findings was that on-site tools known as tilt meters had recorded the ground moving four times during the week prior to Taylor’s death.

Regulators said they had not asked Chevron whether the data were shared with workers, but a separate investigation by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health earlier this year found that the operator had failed to establish written tilt-meter guidelines for employees.

--Michael J. Mishak in Sacramento


Photo: Oil wells in Oildale, Calif. Credit: Getty Images