Experts try to snuff raging shale well fire

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Before crews can move in and finally shut down the wells that have been spewing natural gas for the past three days, they will have to get rid of all the metal that continues to make the site so dangerous, the state said Thursday.

The super-heated metal has been acting as a match for the now periodic fire at the Marcellus Shale well in Dunkard, Greene County, said John Poister, spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection.

"By removing all the metal, they're hoping the fire will stop," he said.

"If it works, then they'll determine how to close those well holes and stop that gas from escaping."

Crews working for Chevron, the owner of the well, on Thursday afternoon began removing as much of the metal and equipment it could from the well pad.

While they're removing the metal and equipment, the crews have been keeping an eye out to see if they can locate an employee of one of the subcontractors, Cameron Surface Systems, who was working on the site when the explosion occurred. The employee has been missing since then and is feared dead.

"As close as [the work crews] got to the site, they could not find anything so far" pointing them to the missing employee, said state Sen. Tim Solobay, D-Canonsburg, who visited near the site Thursday with DEP secretary Christopher Abruzzo.

The senator said he and Mr. Abruzzo got within "several hundred feet" of the well pad, but would go no closer because of the ongoing danger, which is still much less than it was the first day of the well fire when a tornado of flame enveloped much of the well pad.

Mr. Solobay wondered whether the state's current setback requirements for natural gas wells are appropriate, given what happened this week.

"Both the secretary and I discussed that with the folks from Chevron," he said.

Chevron said in a statement late Thursday that it and Wild Well Control "continue to make progress in planning for the removal of machinery from the incident site."

The state's 2012 recent rewrite of oil and gas-related laws, known as Act 13, increased a variety of setback for unconventional wells -- like the Chevron well -- including from 200 feet to 500 feet from existing buildings or water wells, unless the owner of the building or well consents to a shorter distance.

"It was never the intent that when that one bill [Act 13] was passed that it was set in stone," Mr. Solobay said. "But it's too early to rush to judgment and say what might be changed, if anything."

The fire, which began with an explosion just before 7 a.m. Tuesday, was being fueled from gas escaping from two of three gas wells on the site.

One of those wells stopped burning Wednesday because water coming up with gas from the well extinguished the fire, Mr. Poister said experts on the scene surmised.

The other well periodically flames out, but then restarts when the still-escaping gas hits a super-heated piece of metal.

It is not known when Chevron, or the well fire experts it flew in from Houston, Wild Well Control, will attempt to shut the well down.

Crews also put up four gas monitors at the edges of the well pad Thursday, which will let workers know whether there's a buildup of too much gas as they work to shut the well down.

In addition, DEP employees placed four gas-collecting canisters upwind and downwind of the site Thursday, and will place 20 more.

"We want to make sure the air quality wasn't compromised in this and the burn-off," Mr. Poister said.

Sean D. Hamill: or 412-263-2579. First Published February 13, 2014 6:04 PM

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