The state's secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection said late Wednesday that the massive natural gas well fire that exploded into flames Tuesday, leaving one person feared dead, could be brought under control in a day or two.
After meeting with well owner Chevron and well fire experts Chevron were flown in from Houston, Texas. DEP Secretary Christopher Abruzzo said, "from what we're seeing, I'm thinking the next day or two this will be contained and the well will be capped."
If so, that might give search crews their first chance to search for a contractor who went missing and is feared dead after the fire began just before 7 a.m. Tuesday.
Mr. Abruzzo said some tried to find the missing man on the well site Wednesday. "But they were only able to get so close and then they had to stop searching," he said.
That was proof again that the blaze, which occasionally flared out Wednesday, only to reignite again, still created "a very dangerous situation on the well pad," DEP spokesman John Poister said.
The uncontrolled blowout of natural gas from one of three wells on the site had well fire experts from Chevron and Wild Well Control huddled all day with state officials trying to figure out how to put it out -- and cause no more harm in the process.
"Our biggest concern is the environmental impact of what they're going to do," Mr. Poister said. "This is not your standard well fire. It's bigger.
"We want to know what they are going to use to put out that fire and how they're going to contain it and prevent it from spreading and possibly getting into a stream."
While Wild Well would not comment about the discussions, Chevron said in a statement that it "cannot speculate how long the fire may burn. As we gather more information at the well site, we will be in a better position to provide more details."
"Our plans include efforts to control the well by shutting off the flow of natural gas and taking all appropriate procedures to protect the other wells on the pad. We are closely monitoring the status of the adjacent two wells and are developing contingency plans for those wells, if necessary," the company added.
DEP officials said the fire was significantly smaller Wednesday than the previous day.
The fire began as crews were doing work to bring the previously drilled and hydraulically fractured wells into production by hooking up some piping from the wells to gathering lines that lead away from the wells.
One of 19 employees who were at the site suffered minor injuries and was treated and released from a nearby hospital. A second employee, however, has been missing since the explosion.
A Houston-based company, Cameron Surface Systems, said the missing employee worked for the company.
"We are doing everything possible to support [the missing employee's] family during this very difficult time," Cameron said in a statement. "At this point we have no information on what might have caused this incident, but 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."
It is still not known what caused the explosion, something Gov. Tom Corbett said in an interview Wednesday is the secondary objective right now.
"The first thing we want to do is get the fire out. The second thing is we want to know what caused this. Was it human error or mechanical error?" he said.
"If there's something to be improved [from this event], let's learn from our mistakes," he said.
Mr. Corbett said he believed Marcellus Shale drilling is safe.
"I believe it's safe. It's been safe across the country," he said after an unrelated news conference at the Allegheny County Courthouse, Downtown.
Molly Born: email@example.com or 412-263-1944. Sean D. Hamill: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2579. First Published February 12, 2014 12:03 PM