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Boiler procedures key in oil field death of Salem man, ND official says

KEENE, N.D. -- An oil field fatality involving a furnace explosion near here may have been prevented if proper procedures had been followed, the state's chief boiler inspector said this week.

Inspector Robert Reetz said it will be impossible to determine exactly what happened in the Jan. 27 incident that killed 38-year-old Richard Ries, of Salem, but his investigation outlines some factors that contributed to it.

In a report made public Thursday, the inspector for the North Dakota Insurance Department provides new details about the incident.

About 11 a.m. on Jan. 27, rig personnel noticed the boiler pressure was dropping and white smoke was coming from the boiler vent stack, the report says.

One rig hand left the boiler house to get permission to shut down the boiler. Just after the worker left, a furnace explosion occurred.

Ries was standing directly behind the boiler and was blasted by the rear inspection door of the boiler, which is about 2 feet in diameter and 8 inches thick, Reetz said.

"It's just like a great big chunk of iron" that struck Ries at a high rate of speed, Reetz said.

The force of the explosion covered the back of the boiler house with a hardening emulsion of fuel oil, scale and water.

A second man was walking out of the boiler house when the explosion occurred and suffered steam and oil burns, Reetz said.

In his report, Reetz said he found that certain valves showed excessive wear. His investigation found that the company was using a so-called blow down procedure that is considered dangerous to the boiler.

That improper procedure may have caused shock to the boiler to the point of causing leaking tubes, which created an excessive buildup of scale, Reetz said.

Reetz noted in his report that he sent a notice in October 2009 to all operating drilling companies about the correct procedures.

Calls to drilling company Patterson-UTI media relations were not returned.

A rig manager who answered the phone at the rig 491 where the incident occurred said he signed a legal document saying he would not talk about Ries' death.

In an interview, Reetz said the tubes had been leaking for an extended period of time and a knowledgeable, licensed boiler operator may have prevented the accident from occurring.

Reetz, in his 33rd year as chief inspector, said he tried unsuccessfully for years to have North Dakota require boiler operators to be licensed.

Few states require boiler operators to be licensed, Reetz said. However, Minnesota and Canada do, he said.

"We have a lot of new operators and they're not always as trained as they should be," Reetz said.

His office is investigating a similar furnace explosion that occurred since the Jan. 27 incident, Reetz said. But in that case, there were no injuries.

The Occupational Safety & Health Administration also is investigating the incident that killed Ries.

Eric Brooks, assistant director for the Bismarck Area OSHA Office, said OSHA is not releasing further information at this time because the investigation is ongoing.