Forrest County leaders demand increased safety at tank sites

By Mike McDaniel - bio | email | Twitter

HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) -  For Devon Byrd, 16, and Phillip White, 18, a walk to an oil tank in the Carnes Community back in October of 2009 became one they never came back from. A spark mixed with fumes from the tank caused an explosion, killing them.

And their deaths sparked a debate Tuesday between Forrest County leaders and the chairman of the state oil and gas board, John Parker, as to what safety regulations need to be in place, to make sure it doesn't happen again.

"One of our duties as public officials is to provide for public safety," said Board of Supervisors President David Hogan.

The county presented Parker with 4 primary recommendations to present to the oil and gas board. One, perimeter fencing around oil and gas well sites, two, a gate with a lock, three, signage and four, 24-hour emergency contact information posted on site.

"We're only asking for 4 simple things here," said Hogan, talking to Parker.

"That's right and you're going to get three," responded Parker.

While there was agreement on two, three and four, a perimeter fence became the dividing point.

"In our opinion that's not the direction to go, putting fence up. The direction to go is to put a gate on the bottom of the staircase going up to the tank that the boys went up on top of," said Parker.

Parker also agreed to some type of gate being placed at the entry points to the sites, but says the oil and gas board can only do so much in regulating and enforcing. Parker says a perimeter fence could even trap workers trying to escape from an explosion, using the recent Clarke County explosion as an example, saying with no fence, lives were actually saved.

"You may be trying to fix one thing and causing something else," said Parker "At some point down the road you've got to say a common sense approach has got to be taken and that's don't mess with something that's not yours."

Of the 80 well sites in Southern Forrest County, 50 have no fencing to keep people out, like the one now with flowers for Byrd and White. That's something supervisors, as well as state Senator Billy Hudson, say needs to change.

"To have a fence and a posted sign or whatever, we still feel like that would stop 90 percent or more people that would otherwise just go right up and think it was ok and safe," said Hogan.

"We just want to try to make these things a little more than an open site that anybody can drive in to," said Forrest County Emergency Director Terry Steed.

"If it's closed off, then those individuals should know that once they penetrate that veil that you're on your own because you should not have cut the fence, broken the lock or did anything else to go any further than that and it's established," said supervisor Rod Woullard.

"If I can be shown why it won't work then maybe we can leave the fence off, but it seems to me that good common sense would be to have the fence," said Hudson.

Senator Hudson is even preparing to introduce legislation creating requirements for oil and gas sites but until that happens, Hudson is asking the county to go ahead and pass some type of ordinance.

"My purpose is to try to make sure that this type accident never happens again. We do have a problem and we are addressing the problem," said Hudson.

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