Lengthy investigation ahead in Marcellus Shale well explosion

February 11, 2014

State regulators expect it will take months to determine what caused the “surface explosion” at a Marcellus Shale well site in Greene County that injured one worker and left another one missing Tuesday morning.

State Department of Environmental Protection spokesman John Poister said the agency is continuing to monitor the situation with multiple employees near the scene, but could not begin even a preliminary investigation until the well was brought under control.

“Right now we’re just observing,” Poister said as the well fire continued to rage Tuesday afternoon. “The real investigation will occur after the fire is extinguished. We can’t make any judgments until we have a chance to investigate.”

Wild Well Control, a specialized crew from Houston, Texas, trained in fighting well fires, arrived in Pittsburgh about 1 p.m. Tuesday after being contracted by Chevron to handle the situation. However, the process to control the well could take days and it was not known how soon investigators could enter the area.

“An (explosion) of this fiery size is extremely uncommon,” Poister said.

The use of the out-of-state crew and its travel time raised new questions about whether first responders at the local level had proper training and equipment to handle a gas well emergency. Five area fire departments had to remove their crews from the scene because it was too dangerous to be near the well.

That concerned state Rep. Jesse White, D-Cecil, who suggested implementing a regional response team to get certified crews to the scene quicker.

“We have to use this as a learning experience at the state and local level,” White said. “Obviously, you don’t want volunteers going into a scene if they’re not equipped to handle it, but there needs to be a serious discussion on what needs to happen at these sites.”

State environmental regulators announced in August 2010 that the state planned to utilize Texas-based CUDD Well Control after there were lengthy response delays by out-of-state crews during two blowouts that year. The DEP indicated at the time that the company would base a crew in Bradford County to give it quick access to all parts of the state.

Poister said Chevron, which was drilling the well where the explosion occurred, maintains control at the scene and chose to bring in Wild Well to control the fire. He was unaware if CUDD had ever settled in Pennsylvania or if had been used in previous well explosions.

“We floated the idea, but there was nothing that would require them to move here,” Poister said.

Tuesday morning’s well explosion is the most serious incident related to Marcellus Shale drilling in Western Pennsylvania since a flash fire at an Avella natural gas storage tank injured three workers in February 2011. There was also a fire at a well site in Hopewell Township in March 2010.

Two workers died in a well explosion in Indiana Township, Allegheny County, in July 2010. The DEP termed that a “well control incident” in which there was a loss of control at the gas wellhead.

Mike Jones has been a news reporter since 2005, covering crime, state and municipal government, education and energy. In addition to working at the Observer-Reporter, he also has spent time at the Charleston (W.Va.) Daily Mail and Patch.com. He holds a journalism degree from West Virginia University.

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