Eyewitness News gets exclusive look at deadly sinkhole

Eyewitness News gets exclusive look at deadly sinkhole »Play Video
The California Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources gave Eyewitness News this photo Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2011, showing the oil field near Taft where Chevron worker Robert David Taylor, of Bakersfield, died in a sinkhole that developed June 21.

TAFT, Calif. — Photos from an oil field near Taft give a first look at the area where a sinkhole opened up, killing a Chevron worker. State officials have banned steam injection at problem areas near two wells, and they say more steam and fluids are reaching the surface.

Eyewitness News obtained photos from the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources. The images from DOGGR show a hilly area of the large Midway Sunset Field. It's the place where Robert David Taylor, 54, was killed June 21 when he fell into a sinkhole.

The photos show what looks like steam coming from the side of a hill, and a large darkened area. That indicates the area affected by eruptions of water, steam, rocks and mud, DOGGER spokesman Don Drysdale explained by e-mail. Three photos are from the Chevron lease near Well 20.

That's where a "surface expression" had shown up, and that's what state investigators are worried about. According to DOGGR documents obtained by Eyewitness News, surface expressions have continued to turn up in this area, and they continued to develop.

Both Chevron and TRC Operating Company have now been ordered to stop steam injection in the problem areas.

"The only things of which we are certain are that this is a hazardous situation and that there is a correlation between injection, fracturing, and the surface expressions we're seeing," reads a statement issued August 12 from DOGGR supervisor Elena Miller.

Eyewitness News asked about injection and fracturing. Steam injection is used in some fields to help get oil out. But, it's different from a type "fracturing" that's now getting a lot of attention. Drysdale explained that "hydraulic fracturing" is being used now in natural gas production, and involves injecting fluids at pressures greater than the formation.

The injection used in the Midway Sunset field involves forcing steam through horizontal or vertical wells in intervals of three to four days.

Meanwhile, "surface expression" is the term used for the problems they're seeing in the field. Drysdale explained that means that "fluids, steam, gases and solids from underground formations are coming to the surface." The concern is the link between the expressions and steam injection.

That's why Chevron was ordered to stop injection within 300 feet of the problem near Well 20, and TRC was ordered to stop steam injection within 500 feet of Well 20 on their lease. TRC was also ordered to stop any steam injection within 300 feet of their nearby well, "Bull" 9.

More photos from DOGGR show the scene from the TRC location. Large dark areas are seen covered with netting, at two different levels along a hillside. Spokesman Don Drysdale said the pictures show oil and water that's coming to the surface near the "Bull" 9 well. The nets are to keep out birds, and a dirt wall's been put up to contain the oil.

The DOGGR order to TRC on August 5, outlines the problems that continued after the sinkhole accident on June 21. It says at that time, more fluid and gas showed up on the surface near the "Bull" 9 well. And on August 3, two more surface problems were seen near Well 20, one of them was five feet in radius.

Then on August 5, there was a "violent eruption" near Well 20. The report says rocks, fluid, steam and other materials came out; DOGGR said no one was hurt in the eruption.

The photos from the Chevron lease, showing steam coming up, were taken on August 5. Drysdale explained that view includes the upper terrace of that site, and material that was "erupted from the surface expression."

"Some of the rocks/material are the size of softballs and landed 50 - 60 feet from the surface expression," he said. That photo is from the area near Well 20.

That's where Taylor was checking into problems, when the earth opened up under his feet. DOGGR reports indicate Taylor fell several feet below ground level into a hole containing poisonous hydrogen sulfide gas, steam and hot water.

Eyewitness News called both Chevron and TRC on Thursday and left messages, neither company responded. Chevron is investigating the fatal accident, and so is Cal-OSHA.

The DOGGR statement last week noted their orders banning steam injection are intended to stop oil, steam and other materials from getting up to the surface. "The fatality that occurred was a tragic incident," reads the statement for supervisor Elena Miller. "We haven't determined how the steam and oil is (sic) migrating to the surface at the site."