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Drilling Mud Engineer Remembers Asbestos “Like Being in a Sandstorm”

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Austin, TXLes had a long and successful career as an asbestos mud engineer, but he’s paying for it now. He was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), but it could be a whole lot worse. Many of his co-workers exposed to asbestos - from rigs to mines - have succumbed to asbestos mesothelioma.

Les worked with asbestos drilling mud on oil rigs in the Gulf for 15 years, and he has been around asbestos, in one form or another, for most of his life. “I was hired by the Milchem Mud Company as a mud engineer; my job was to keep the properties of the mud weight from blowing out the well and to stabilize the hole,” says Les. “I learned a lot about asbestos and clay chemistry on the job, including the dangers of asbestos later on.

“I was in my late 20s when I got my first job back in 1961, and I quit in 2002. I heard about the dangers of asbestos years after I was exposed to it, sometime in the 70s. We didn’t think anything was wrong with it and there was no preventive action. We just sat there and breathed in this stuff - it was like sitting in a sandstorm.

“We used Flosal. They were 50 lb bags of white fibrous powder. When we dumped the bags into a mixing hopper, the air was full of particles floating around everywhere - we were covered in the stuff. There was no breathing apparatus back then. We had no safety equipment; in fact, the only time we wore goggles was when we mixed caustic soda, not even when we mixed Flosal, because we didn’t know that it was full of asbestos fibers. I remember that you had to mix it real fast in that room, and there was no place to go.”

(Flosal contained 85-95 percent asbestos and was used as a drilling mud additive. The product was a viscosifier, and was used to increase the viscosity of (to thicken) drilling mud fluids. In the lawsuit PHILLIPS 66 CO. v. LOFTON (94 So.3d 1051 (2012), a jury found in favor of plaintiff Troy Lofton, who claimed he suffered asbestosis as a result of exposure to Flosal.)

Although Les doesn’t have asbestosis, his “golden years” have been taken from him. “I’ve had my fair share of health problems,” he says. “I was diagnosed with COPD in the late 90s and I have been on oxygen for more than 10 years. It first affected me when I was working in deep water on the drilling rig and I could barely climb the stairs on the rig. I thought I would have to quit.

“I had stents put in my heart after I failed the stress tests. And I still didn’t know that my condition was related to asbestos. I was a smoker but I quit in 1996. Doctors say that your COPD will get better when you quit smoking but mine got worse, gradually. I figure that being a smoker will impact an asbestos lawsuit, but because I got worse instead of better, I think asbestos is still floating around my lungs. However, I don’t want them to do an autopsy on my lungs - yet.”

Les says he is now pretty much housebound, although he has a portable oxygen tank and uses a walker. “I have a generator in the house and it is connected to a hose, so it’s like being on a leash,” he says, laughing. “Sad but true.”

“Seriously, when I first heard about the dangers of asbestos and how we mixed Flosal in that room without any safety precautions, I was upset. That impacted my life. The Flosal makers and Melcham should have told people as soon as they knew. They should have given us protective masks. I can’t remember when we quit using Flosal but I do remember hearing that the product was bad for us. I googled Flosal a while back and found that it is still being made in Germany. So it is likely being used in other countries like India and Columbia. That is a crime.”


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As part of the Center for Energy Sustainability and Economics global series, the 3rd annual Drilling Fluids and Cuttings Management Asia conference will look at implementing environmentally friendly drilling fluids and cuttings strategies to optimize your waste management whilst cutting costs. This forum will bring you tested field examples from operators across Asia and further afield who have optimized their drilling and waste management. We take a microscopic look at practical strategies focusing on:

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• Overcoming the challenges of shipping drill cuttings in frontier territories onshore
• Exploring the dilemma of environmental testing of drilling fluids
• Legislative perspectives from the environmental regulators

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