Note: StateImpact Pennsylvania will continue to update this story as more details become available.
A worker is still unaccounted for more than two days after a natural gas well explosion in southwestern Pennsylvania.
The incident happened around 6:45 a.m. Tuesday morning at Chevron’s Lanco 7H well site in Dunkard Township, Greene County – about 50 miles southwest of Pittsburgh. The fire continued to burn into Thursday. The cause of the explosion is still unknown.
State Rep. Pam Synder (D- Greene) says state police are treating the site as a crime scene, even though a death has not been confirmed, and a body has not been found.
She said a Houston, Texas-based company called Wild Well Control, which specializes in these types of incidents, is on the scene.
“They’re doing everything they can,” she said. “Everybody’s doing everything they can to make sure that this situation is contained, controlled, and over as soon as possible.”
“A serious reminder of the dangers we face”
The missing worker is employed by the Houston-based contractor, Cameron. The company is not releasing his name, but has issued a statement about the incident.
“It is a serious reminder of the dangers we face in our industry every day, and underscores the importance of safety in everything we do.”
Chevron says they don’t know how long the fire may burn.
“We have begun to monitor the air, surface waters, and noise in the area for any signs of impact. At this point we have no indications that this incident has created any safety risk, “ said company spokeswoman Lee Ann Wainwright in an email Wednesday afternoon.
Nineteen workers were on the site at the time of the incident, and 18 have been accounted for. Another worker who received minor injuries was treated and released from the hospital yesterday.
Wainwright said Chevron will attempt to control the blaze by shutting off the flow of natural gas to the burning well. There are three gas wells on the site.
“We are closely monitoring the status of the adjacent two wells and are developing contingency plans for those wells if necessary.”
DEP: No concerns nearby residents were harmed
DEP Secretary Chris Abruzzo attended a briefing Wednesday with officials from Chevron, its contractor Cameron, and Wild Well Control. He explained that there is a truck next to the flaming well that’s absorbing a significant amount of heat, making it more difficult for the flames to be extinguished.
Abruzzo says windy conditions have helped disperse vapors into the atmosphere instead of settling into the valley where most of the nearby homes are. DEP staff used hand-held monitors on the site.
“They were getting negative readings in terms of volatile organic compounds and other explosive-type gases,” he said.
The DEP will continue to place air sampling devices in the area around the well site.
“We don’t have any real concerns that there are people in the immediate area that may have been harmed either because of the initial explosion or ignition or from vapors,” he says. “This just demonstrates why making sure that the location of well pads is done responsibly because at the end of the day, the most important thing for all of us is the protection of our citizens.”
On Thursday morning Governor Corbett issued a statement, saying he has directed Abruzzo to work with state, county, and local authorities to investigate what happened.
“Our focus right now is making sure workers and first responders are safe, and we are concerned about the potential loss of life,” Corbett said. “We need to determine exactly what happened and how we can learn from it.”
“Deep roaring and burning”
A day after the explosion, the sound of the fire could still be heard at least two miles away from the site.
Joann and Edward Herrington, of nearby Mount Morris, Pa., say they didn’t hear the blast of the first explosion early Tuesday morning, but the noise continued throughout the day and into the night.
“There was a lot of commotion going up to road, fire trucks, helicopters, but we never put nothing together,” says Joann Herrington, 73, who can hear a “deep roaring and burning” sound from the well pad up the road from her home. She says the noise was so loud it woke her up at 3 a.m.
“It scared me last night, I woke up to see what was going on,” she says. “I wanted to make sure it wasn’t too close.”
Her husband Edward Herrington, 74, is a retired coal miner who says he worked on shallow natural gas well sites when he got out of high school. But he says he’s not afraid.
“It’s a shame to have a job at something like that and that happens,” he says. “You don’t know what to think of it.”
Dunkard Township Supervisor Joe Gacek was watching the plumes of smoke coming off the site in the distance with his young son, Matthew.
“I heard it about 7:30 in the morning yesterday,” Matthew said. “It sounded like a big car door just slamming.”
Matthew’s elementary school is about one mile away from the site of the fire. That didn’t worry his father, Joe.
“They have people that’s handling it their way and just let them handle it,” he said.
Joe Gacek said most people in Dunkard Township make their livelihood through the coal industry and they’re also no strangers to oil and gas drilling.
“Just shows you that it can happen anywhere,” he said. “You just never know.”
Chevron cuts back operations
Chevron says there was no drilling or hydraulic fracturing taking place at the time of the incident. Instead, workers were preparing the three wells on the site to go into production.
“Currently our Appalachian operations have been reduced in order to ensure we are able to dedicate the appropriate personnel and resources to this incident,” says spokeswoman Wainwright. “Chevron would like to express our sincere regret to those who may be affected by the incident.”
Data from the state Department of Environmental Protection shows there was one violation at the site on December 9, 2013 as the result of a routine inspection.*
The DEP inspector wrote in his comments that Chevron, “had constructed a production pipeline across the well pad and access road, without approval with a major modification to the permit.”
It’s not clear whether this violation is related to the fire. Since 2011, Chevron Appalachia has received 73 violations from the DEP and paid $44,000 in fines.
Chevron is encouraging nearby residents with concerns can call their toll-free line: 1-877-847-8408
*This story has been updated to reflect the following correction: a previous version stated there were no violations at the site.