The head of the state Department of Environmental Protection was the scene on of a natural gas well fire in Greene County today and says crews are making progress combating the blaze. One worker who was on the scene during the Tuesday morning explosion is still missing. His identity has not been released.
DEP Secretary Chris Abruzzo says an accounting had been done at the well site Tuesday morning and that Chevron has reason to believe the worker was there at the time of the fire.
“This is obviously sensitive information and it’s obviously sensitive to the folks at Chevron and to the contractor,” Abruzzo says. “So we’re all just trying to be very delicate with the information.”
One well still burning
Abruzzo saw the charred well pad Thursday afternoon from about 500 yards away, and says he could see methane gas “shooting out” of the wellhead horizontally, reigniting every few seconds with a booming sound. While many drillers tapping the Marcellus Shale in western Pennsylvania are producing “wet” natural gas, rich in liquids like ethane and propane that are more volatile, this well pad in Greene County is producing dry gas or methane only.
Two of the three wells on the pad caught fire early Tuesday morning. One fire at well 6H extinguished itself, while the other at well 7H continues to burn intermittently into Thursday evening.
Deep underground, flowback water is pooling where the well turns horizontally. Abruzzo explained that water gets pushed up by the pressure of the gas.
“So as it gets close to the top, you have water up there and it’ll put the flame out,” he says. “Then that water’s gone and then the gas comes again and it reignites.”
Chevron has called on a Houston, Texas- based company that specializes in oil and gas well fires, called Wild Well Control. Their workers have begun moving trucks and other equipment off of the well site so they don’t pose an ignition hazard. However, Abruzzo says the snow in the region is slowing the process and crews may not be able to fully extinguish the fire and cap the well for a few more days.
“They are making progress.”
Response time is criticized
Former DEP Secretary John Hanger– a democratic gubernatorial candidate– criticized the response time, saying Wild Well Control did not get on the scene fast enough after the fire started early Tuesday.
Hanger, who worked under former Governor Ed Rendell, says in the fall of 2010, the department was close to brokering a deal that would have required gas companies to pay for personnel and equipment from groups like Wild Well Control to be located in Pennsylvania and bring response times down to less than five hours.
It took about 10 hours for crews from the time Wild Well Control left Houston until when they arrived on the scene in Greene County.
“Wells going out of control are rare events, but they’re almost certain to happen,” says Hanger. “We basically had the work done and it needed a follow through.”
Wild Well Control has an office in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, about one hour away from the site of the Chevron well fire. Abruzzo says that’s where the equipment being used to fight this fire came from. However, the crews need to be flown in from Houston.
Abruzzo says “for very practical reasons,” the contract under the Rendell administration did not become regulation.
“Based on what I’ve seen, based on what our folks on the ground are seeing, I don’t think that delay in time… is going to be regarded as significant in terms of how [Wild Well Control was] trying to contain this well and I don’t think it should give anyone any cause for concern.”
DEP cited well site for violation in 2013
In the meantime, the DEP has set up air quality monitors upwind and downwind of the well pad that will collect samples for the next 24 hours. Those samples will be sent to a lab for analysis. DEP spokesman John Poister says normally that process can take a few weeks, but the DEP expects to get the results within a few days.
In December 2013, DEP inspectors found the Chevron had laid a pipeline across the pad and an access road without permission from the department. Poister says the violation is unrelated to the fire.
“What they did was not unusual, but they didn’t do it with a permit,” Poister says. “You don’t do work unless you have a permit.”
Update at 9:52 p.m. - Chevron says water tanks will be delivered to the site on Friday, weather permitting, to help Wild Well Control extinguish the fire and cap the well.