On Sunday afternoon, crews capped a leaking Chevron natural gas well in Greene County that caught fire nearly two weeks ago, resulting in the death of a 27-year-old contract worker.
Methane gas continues to spew from a second well that also ignited on February 11 in Dunkard Township. Chevron says it could be a few more days before Texas-based Wild Well Control can shut off the flow.
In the meantime, the Department of Environmental Protection has been monitoring air and water quality in the area and says the releases should not be harmful to nearby residents.
Scott Perry, the DEP’s Deputy Secretary for Oil and Gas Management who was on the scene in Greene County last week, says Wild Well Control has estimated the two wells were initially venting between 10 and 25 million cubic feet of gas a day.
“They were estimating high so they could establish a conservative safe zone,” Perry says, noting the flow of gas had since decreased.
In the days following the initial explosion and fire on the well site, Chevron put wells on a neighboring pad into production to reduce the pressure underground and stem the flow of the gas to the flaming wells. Both wells extinguished themselves five days later.
Official cause still unknown
While the official cause of the explosion is still under investigation, the DEP’s Scott Perry says the problem may have come from a defect in the wellhead itself. Chevron’s wellheads are ringed with collars that have set pins running horizontally through them. Perry says one of the pins may have blown out of the collar, releasing the gas.
At the time, 19 contractors were on the site, but not working not directly at the wellhead. When the well began making a hissing sound, Perry says two of the workers approached to investigate as the explosion occurred.
One of the two workers was released from the hospital the same day with minor injuries. The other, 27-year-old Ian McKee, was considered a missing person until state police confirmed that his remains had been found more than a week later. He leaves behind a fiancee who is pregnant with his child.
Perry says every three days, inspectors with DEP and Chevron have been making the rounds at some of the company’s other well sites to check the integrity of the wellheads.
“We’re confident the remaining wells are stable,” Perry says. “Chevron has every contingency that we could think of. We’re very comfortable with how they are proceeding.”
Chevron comes under fire
Pennsylvania lawmakers have praised the DEP for a “textbook response” to the Greene County well fire and aftermath, while Chevron continues to be the subject of online mockery and newspaper opinion pages after it was reported the company’s community outreach staff gave local residents gift certificates for pizza and soda.
Chevron has said the meals were meant as a “token of appreciation” to residents and a show of support to local businesses after the fire.
On Monday, anti-drilling groups delivered petitions in pizza boxes to Chevron’s field office in Smithfield, Pennsylvania.
“We want them to apologize publicly and lay out for the public what exactly they are going to do for these people,” says Karen Feridun with the group Berks Gas Truth.
“What are they going to do to make sure this doesn’t happen again? How transparent are they going to be as to the results of their investigation?”
The day after the fire started, local residents told StateImpact Pennsylvania they were acquainted with the dangers of extractive industries like natural gas drilling and coal mining. There is an active deep coal mine at the base of the hill where the Chevron well pad caught fire.
Edward Herrington, 74, worked in the mines for 27 years as a mechanic and a maintenance foreman.
“You gotta have your coal and your gas, that’s a must to heat with,” Herrington told StateImpact Pennsylvania that day.
“It’s a shame to have a job at something like that and that happens. You don’t know what to think of it.”