Southwest Regional Medical Center emptied after gas build-up

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For nearly a month, a building that houses six physician practices next to Southwest Regional Medical Center in Waynesburg has been so full of gas as to render it uninhabitable.

The hospital, which owns the Medical Arts Building, emptied the facility Jan. 14 after a technician from Peoples Natural Gas found a leak during an annual inspection. The leak was repaired, but the gas concentration didn't subside. It made up more than 3 percent of the air inside, according to information provided to the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Methane becomes an explosion risk at 5 percent.

The soil around the building had methane concentrations close to 90 percent.

"These conditions represent a clear threat to public health and safety," Southwest's CEO, Cynthia Cowie, and facilities director Kevin Sims wrote in a complaint to the DEP on Feb. 6. "This is a hardship which will have a significant impact on a small hospital like ours."

The hospital is asking the state to find out who is to blame for the methane buildup and make them pay for remediation.

Suspects are numerous. Pipelines from two natural gas utilities -- Columbia Gas and Equitable Gas, which is owned by Peoples -- run through the area. A number of natural gas wells, some conventional and at least one Marcellus Shale well, are pumping out gas within a mile of the building, while plugged coalbed methane wells are scattered throughout the area.

Southwest Regional Medical Center, in the meantime, has hired its own consultant -- Fred Baldassare, owner of Murrysville-based Echelon Applied Geoscience Consulting and a former gas migration expert for the DEP. His analysis showed the gas didn't come from a pipeline or a coal mine, but rather from a natural gas producing formation.

"This is a fresh leak that is a strong, very strong concentration," Mr. Baldassare said. "There's always the concern that this could get bigger."

Last week, Southwest installed a system that intercepts the gas before it goes into the building and vents it into the air. The hospital is also installing a fan to force more gas into that system.

Joy Eggleston, a spokeswoman for the hospital, said the displaced 10 physicians from all six practices have been relocated -- they are scattered across several locations -- and are still seeing patients.

Gas detectors at the 49-bed main hospital -- which sits across the street from the medical building -- indicate the conditions there are safe, she stressed.

There's no lack of organizations still hunting for the source of the stray gas. In addition to the DEP, investigations are underway at the Public Utility Commission; Vantage Energy, which has several gas wells nearby; as well as at the utilities involved.

Mr. Baldassare said in his 20 years investigating gas migration for the DEP and his private work after that, situations like this one are "relatively rare."

"It was that serious," he said.

Anya Litvak: or 412-263-1455.

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