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'Frac pipe' poses new threat to steel mills

Jun 04, 2013 | 08:00 PM | Sean Davidson

Tags  Texas steel mill, explosion, hydraulic fracturing, fracking, Gerdau Long Steel North America

An explosion at a Texas steel mill in late April has raised industrywide discussions on scrap metal left behind by hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.”

The incident occurred when Tampa, Fla.-based Gerdau Long Steel North America’s mill in Midlothian dropped a charge of scrap into its furnace, the mill said in an April 26 letter to suppliers. “The explosion was so powerful the windows were blown out of the charging crane. Luckily, no one was hurt or killed; only equipment was damaged,” it said.

Gerdau conducted an investigation of the scrap in its yard and found prohibited items, such as “frac pipe” scrap and “closed containers,” that it believes could have caused the explosion. Frac pipe is used in oil and gas drilling. Subsequently, the steelmaker told suppliers that “frac pipe and closed containers (not cut in half) found in truck, rail car and barge loads will lead to immediate rejection.”

Following the incident, the Steel Manufacturers Association (SMA) sent its environment, safety and plant operations committees information on charge scrap that has the potential for “danger of explosions.”

“This was a follow-up after several facilities reported rejection of loads and one facility reported a furnace explosion without injury,” SMA president Thomas A. Danjczek told AMM. “We will continue to communicate with our various committees and the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries to determine how to best identify the material to provide a safe workplace in the scrapyards and melt shops.”

ISRI director of safety John Gilstrap said the dangers involved with frac pipe were topics of discussion at the organization’s recent Safety and Environmental Council meeting in St. Louis. “Based on recent events and discussions at the (council) meeting, ISRI will be exploring actions members should take to further protect workers in the event frac materials are encountered,” he said.

Gerdau said in its letter to suppliers that it had seen two different types of frac pipe--which sources said is typically sold in packages of No. 1 heavy melt--delivered to its facility.

The first was a “frac gun,” or perforating gun, used in gas or oil wells to perforate wells’ production tubing. The “guns” are recognizable by indentations in a spiral pattern along the length of the pipe.

Gerdau said the second example it found was actual perforated production tubing. “It, too, will have holes along its length in the same spiral pattern but never contained an explosive charge. It is what they fired the gun through,” the letter said. “The problem with perforated production tubing is, when we see it, there is usually a perforating gun in the load as well, or a good chance of it, as these items come from the same place. Thus, there is a chance of a potential hazard.”

One Texas scrap supplier said there was something puzzling about the whole affair. “Since 2000, there have probably been 150,000 to 200,000 perforation charges set off, which does not include an estimated 2 million seismic charges, here in Texas--not saying anything about all the other states. The perforation pipe has never been a problem before, so how did this problem occur?” he asked.

“Perhaps they should determine the source and learn why the explosives got through their operation,” he said. “This is a unique circumstance. This is not frac scrap; this is perforation scrap. The whole country is basically ignorant about the fracking operation.”

Other suppliers in the region said they inspect all incoming material to ensure no such scrap enters their stream, while one scrap industry source said his company puts the scrap through a water process and shreds it before exporting it.

“We are in the heart of ‘frac country’ and have had issues with that material showing up here on a consistent basis. It’s also known as ‘down-hole guns.’ It is one of the most vigorously looked-for items, and we don’t buy it--period,” another scrap company source said. “We make no exceptions and treat them in the same manner as people that show up with sealed vessels. In fact, we have lost accounts with (two oil companies) because of our refusal to receive or pick up the material. The down-hole guns basically have charges in them, and there is no way to verify that they have been fired, so we don’t buy them.”

A fourth source called for mills’ inspection processes to be thorough in isolating such material, but added that the fracking industry “needs to police this or whoever sells the explosive. And not put it in landfills so someone can fish it out and take it to a scrapyard.”

The source said he had pulled out about 40 tonnes of frac pipe over the past three years to keep it out of the scrap flow at his facility. “I cannot find a safe way to get rid of it now. It has all been popped,” he said. “We find people hide it in loads a few pieces at a time and we do not find it until the customer has gone.”

A fifth source suggested that oil fields take responsibility and certify that the scrap is clean. “I have spoken to a lot of producers of this scrap and they swear up and down that nothing leaves their facilities without being inspected as the explosives are regulated, but some mills are getting scared and others feel like the weighed risk is OK to take because the likelihood of one causing an explosion is so little,” he said.

A Gerdau spokesman did not officially confirm the incident or the subsequent letters from Gerdau’s scrap buyers at Midlothian and Beaumont to suppliers banning the material along with closed containers.

“Gerdau is committed to working with industry trade associations and our suppliers to ensure that any safety issues regarding our raw material supply are addressed,” he said.

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