2014 countdown: A fatal fire & state accused of ignoring fracking complaints

  • Marie Cusick

Our countdown ends with the two most popular web stories of 2014*: A gas well fire in Greene County that claimed a young man’s life, and allegations from former state health workers that Pennsylvania ignored public complaints about gas drilling.
2. Natural gas well explodes in Greene County
A Chevron natural gas well in Greene County exploded February 11th, killing one worker and injuring another. The fire burned for five days before it was extinguished, however it took more than a week to find the remains of 27-year-old Ian McKee, a contract worker with Texas-based Cameron International.
Here’s a video of the fire posted by WPXI:

Update: State investigators with the Department of Environmental Protection later said the explosion was likely caused by an unnamed– and inexperienced– contractor who failed to properly tighten a bolt and lock nut on a wellhead, allowing gas to escape and eventually ignite. DEP also criticized Chevron for being “too guarded” in its communication with regulators and the media in the wake of the fire. 
1. Former state health employees say they were silenced on drilling

Two former workers accuse the state Department of Health of suppressing public complaints about gas drilling.

Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY

Two former workers accuse the state Department of Health of suppressing public complaints about gas drilling.

Our top story of the year was this bombshell from two retired state health workers– they claim they were told to ignore public complaints about gas drilling. This story undoubtedly takes the top spot for web traffic because it was shared widely on social media and landed on the home page of reddit (which describes itself as “the front page of the internet”).
The retired workers said they were given a list of 19 drilling-related buzzwords including “fracking”, “natural gas,” and “cancer cluster.” If a member of the public used any of those words, they said they had to refer that person to the agency’s Bureau of Epidemiology. It’s unclear where the complaints went from there. The department disputed the workers’ account and said it followed up on the complaints.
Interestingly, when StateImpact first reported this story, the health department denied the existence of the buzzwords list. Two weeks later reporter Katie Colaneri obtained a copy. The department acknowledged the list, but said it was meant to guide–not silence– employees.
Update:  As a result of StateImpact Pennsylvania’s reporting, the state Health Department announced changes to its policies on handling gas drilling complaints.
*The countdown is based on web traffic to the StateImpact Pennsylvania site.

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