The “Big Coin Toss” at the Flare Stack

While reading through some of this year’s posts on the site to gather more book material, a comment by Table Rocker Jim Madden reminded me of one of the hundreds of interesting things I witnessed at the plant – although I was at home in the village at the time this one occurred. I thought I’d share my perspective of the event here – an event I still think of as the coin toss at the flare stack.

To provide a little background for those who don’t know, the “flare stack” at Table Rock Processing Plant was – and is – a vertical pipe on the north end of the plant where the inlet stream is diverted when there’s an interruption in the plant processes. The toxic gas is (normally) ignited by “pilot” burners at the top of the stack. Those igniters didn’t always work, and the fun we had manually lighting the flare is another story altogether. Understand, folks, that this isn’t a wimpy, little, 4-inch stack like those some of you may have seen at well sites. The plant flare, as I recall, is 24″ in diameter and about 150′ high.  (Someone please correct me if I’m wrong)

The control room

The Control Room, Back in the Day, with (l to r) Aaron Heki, Buddy Henley and Milton Cooper

“Back in the day”, the task of “taking it to flare” was the responsibility of the Senior Operator on shift in the control room. It was a routine we all knew well: Flip the switch to close the plant outlet valve and use a control knob to open the valve to the flare stack and regulate the internal plant pressure. All in all it was a fairly simple process – in a perfect world. Of course, it had to be done in the midst of flashing lights, audible alarms warbling, and while maintaining radio communication with the plant operators. All this was often accompanied by the drone of the H2S alarm siren and the whine of the emergency generator. It was a stressful situation for the most experienced personnel, and for new Senior Operators and those in training, it could be downright confusing.

Now, my memory isn’t as good as it used to be, but I’m almost sure that I remember who was in the control room that day and he was fairly new to the position. What happened, in simple terms, was this: After a power “blink”, the acting Senior Operator flipped the switch to close the plant outlet and in his rush to check the myriad indicators, silence alarms and contact his operators, forgot, for a while, to open the flare valve. This allowed the pressure in the plant vessels to build for a while. When the oversight was realized, he overreacted somewhat and spun the little knob to open the flare valve.

[Cut to my home.] I was enjoying a day off when the lights went out momentarily. (Just another power blink at Table Rock.) Because my living room window offered a great view of the plant, I was in the habit of watching the flare stack ignite – it just never got old. I got up and went to the window and waited… and waited… and waited.

Just as I was saying, out loud, actually, “C’mon, go to flare,” a translucent, white streak shot up from the top of the stack, at least twice the height of the stack itself. After what seemed like entirely too many seconds, a “tiny” flame sprouted at the top of the streak. The stream gradually reduced and the flame eventually fought its way back to its normal size.

The most interesting part, though, was what I saw emerge from the stack just before that white streak. It sparkled in the bright sunlight as it flew impossibly high in the air, spinning like a tossed coin and arcing back down out of sight. I wish I’d had the presence of mind to count the flashes as it flipped, but the truth is I was mesmerized. Note, folks, that the plant is a mile away from where the village sat, so you can imagine how brightly that object must have been flashing to be so visible from my vantage point.

As Jim mentioned in his post, we would all find out later that the sudden rush of gas to the flare stack had ripped the flame spreader from inside the stack and shot it into the air. This was a 2″ thick steel disc with nearly the same diameter as the stack. You can imagine the force required to do something like that. Imagine the punkin’ chunkin’ record we could have set.

It’s important to note that automatic relief valves throughout the plant would have vented the pressure before it reached a critical level. In the final outcome, no one was hurt and the plant came back online. We joked about it, but took the lesson to heart. We put it behind us, because that’s how you roll when you work with the things we worked with. The flare continued to function without that baffle plate, although the flame was somewhat less spectacular. Life at The Rock went on. I never found out whether the landing was heads or tails up.

This was just one of countless “adventures” we had at the plant, but it’s always been one of my most vivid memories of those days. In my mind’s eye, I can almost see an exaggerated bulge in the flare stack as the pressure built up behind the baffle plate, like something out of an old Roadrunner episode.

I’d love to read about this from the perspective of other Table Rockers who witnessed it.

About Dana

I spent 7 years at Table Rock with my wife, daughter and son. After transferring in from the Amarillo, Texas survey crew, I worked as a Plant Operator at Table Rock Processing Plant and later as a General Technician. Like most Table Rockers, life in Table Rock Village and working (and playing) in the Wyoming Red Desert had a great impact on the person I became. I now make my living as a freelance writer and I am working on a book about Table Rock and how it shaped the lives of the residents. I hope to share the stories of fellow Table Rockers as well as my own.
General, Memories

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