Chevron faces numerous DEP violations after fatal well explosion

April 10, 2014
This was the scene Feb. 11 when a gas well exploded at the Lanco well pad, killing one worker. The state Department of Environmenal Protection filed a notice of violations against Chevron, operator of the drilling site in Dunkard Township, Greene County. - Katie Roupe / Observer-Reporter Order a Print

The state Department of Environmental Protection issued nine citations to Chevron Appalachia LLC for events surrounding the Feb. 11 explosion at the company’s Lanco well pad in Dunkard Township, including a citation for failing to allow DEP personnel initial access to the well site.

The explosion at the well pad resulted in the death of one worker, Ian McKee, 27, an employee of a Chevron subcontractor. The wells continued to burn for five days and released gas until they were sealed Feb. 25.

On the day of the explosion, Chevron barred DEP personnel from access to the site and would not permit the agency’s emergency response vehicle to enter an area where the company’s emergency personnel were staged, DEP spokesman John Poister said.

It wasn’t until the day after the explosion, when DEP Secretary Chris Abruzzo visited the site and met with Chevron officials, that DEP staff began to gain more access to the property, he said.

Chevron initially told DEP it didn’t want anyone near the well site because of safety concerns, Poister said. “They were concerned about the stability of the well… It was burning out of control and was very, very hot,” he said.

However, Chevron’s well permits expressly gave DEP “free and unrestricted access” to its well sites, Poister said. DEP personnel, in addition, have the expertise and experience to understand an emergency situation and the possible dangers, he said.

The emergency response vehicle had equipment that would have allowed the agency to monitor conditions at the site, including air quality, which is important to public safety during this type of emergency, Poister said.

Chevron also did not initially provide DEP staff access to the company’s joint command center, where discussions were apparently held regarding the conditions of the well and possible efforts to extinguish the blaze.

Though Chevron did provide the agency with thorough updates on the situation, ”we believe we should have been part of the discussions,” Poister said.

None of the company’s action in regard to DEP’s access to the site is believed to have interfered with DEP’s investigation into the cause of the explosion, Poister said,

“Our investigation is ongoing; our people are doing their interviews and going through documents, that is continuing,” Poister said. “We want to ensure something like this, which was a real tragedy, never happens again.”

None of the investigations, including those being conducted by DEP, state police or the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, identified the cause of the explosion, Poister said.

Asked about reports regarding equipment failure at the well head as a possible cause, Poister said he only knew Chevron replaced some equipment at the pad as well as at similar pads and the company apparently “felt it was something that needed to be examined.”

In addition to failing to grant access, other violations included failure to construct and operate a well to ensure well integrity is maintained, failure to use efforts to prevent explosions and fire, hazardous venting of gas, failure to prevent waste of gas due to the condition of blowout equipment, open burning and discharge of production fluids onto the ground.

Chevron was given 10 days to respond to DEP’s notice of violation, which was issued March 18. Poister said the company filed its response. DEP and Chevron will now meet to discuss the violations.

He also noted the notice of violation is not final and other enforcement actions could be forthcoming as the result of further investigation.

A statement issued by Chevron said the company is currently evaluating DEP’s allegations.

“During our response to this incident, Chevron’s first priority was to ensure the safety of all responders and prevent additional injuries. For that reason, access to the Lanco site during the initial stages of the incident was restricted,” the company said.

At the company’s request, state police established an access control point near the pad. “No one, including Chevron personnel, was permitted access to the pad on the day of the incident, until experts from Wild Well Control arrived on the scene and were able to assess the situation. “

The company said its investigation is ongoing and it is committed to sharing the results when it is complete. “We will continue to cooperate with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and all appropriate regulatory authorities throughout the investigation and thereafter,” it said.

Bob Niedbala worked as a general assignment reporter for the newspaper for 27 years in the Greene County bureau. He received a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Pittsburgh.

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