State investigators have determined that no workplace safety laws were violated in the June 21 death of a Chevron Corp. employee who was walking in an oil field west of Taft when he was suddenly swallowed up by a sinkhole.
A brief investigation summary issued earlier this month by Cal-OSHA recounts details of the accident -- including previously unreleased details of co-workers' desperate efforts to save the man's life -- andconcludes that Chevron did not violate state law.
Cal-OSHA's report states Robert David Taylor, a 54-year-old construction supervisor, and two other workers were going to get two pieces of culvert near a problem well at about 10:50 a.m. on the day of the accident. It says the workers "noticed soil discoloration"near the site.
Taylor "without notice fell through soil into a unknown fluid filled sinkhole," the report states.
When he called for help, the worker next to him immediately rendered assistance, the report says, reaching into the sinkhole with his right arm. But the worker was unable to reach Taylor, the report says.
The worker then got a piece of pipe and inserted it into the sinkhole for Taylor to secure a hold. By that time Taylor was no longer in view, the report says.
Temperatures inside the sinkhole were 180 to 190 degrees, according to the report.
The county coroner's office found that Taylor, a grandfather of four, died from immersion in oil field fluids. The coroner's report does not state what specifically killed him.
Cal-OSHA's report does not close the book on Taylor's death. Chevron has opened an investigation of Taylor's death, as has the state Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, which had no comment on Cal-OSHA's finding. DOGGR's investigation is ongoing. Chevron could not be reached for comment late Wednesday.
Taylor's family has filed a lawsuit over the accident, accusing Gene Watson Construction Inc. of negligent grading work on a project Chevron ordered to address state regulators' concerns about seepage of oil and other fluids to the surface near where the sinkhole formed.
The Cal-OSHA report makes no mention of the grading work or Chevron's efforts to control seepage at the site.
Attorney Daniel Rodriguez, who is representing Taylor's family, said he wasn't surprised by the finding because the workplace rules at issue, Title 8 California Code of Regulation, are pretty basic regulations such as having access to drinking water and a toilet. Those rules wouldn't cover whether grading on the site was done properly or anything like that, he said.
What's more pertinent, Rodriguez said, is whether Cal-OSHA is looking at the contractors Chevron hired to do the work. "I would want to know if they violated any workplace safety regulations," Rodriguez said.
DOGGR, the state's primary oil regulatory agency, cited Taylor's death when it ordered Chevron to halt steam injection within 300 feet of the oil well where the sinkhole is believed to have originated. Chevron said it has not steamed in that area since 2008, when it says it spent about $2 million trying for a third time to plug what it calls a "broken" well that has repeatedly erupted.
The agency cited Taylor's death again on Aug. 7 when it banned Taft's TRC Operating Co. Inc., Chevron's neighbor in the same Midway-Sunset oil field, from steaming within 500 feet of the well. But that was after the sinkhole "erupted" with steam, rocks, oil and water for three days.