Better emergency response proposed for oil, gas wells

Recent mishaps cited in call for improvement


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June Chappel said she feared for her life as a Marcellus Shale well flared burning gas and flames licked and melted the plastic liner of a massive wastewater pit 200 feet from her back door in September.

While the windows of her Hopewell Township home in rural Washington County rattled from the noise of the flare and her dogs cowered trying to find refuge from the intense heat, a volunteer fire department sprayed water on the flaring gas and Ms. Chappel called the state Department of Environmental Protection for information.

But no fire or burning wastewater pond liner had been reported to the DEP or the county 911, Ms. Chappel told a U.S. Senate hearing held Monday at the federal courthouse, Downtown, to review existing emergency response procedures in the state's fast-growing Marcellus Shale gas well industry and proposed improvements.

"I felt very unsafe, like I was going to have a heart attack," Ms. Chappel, fighting back tears, testified at the hearing, where a photographic enlargement of the picture she snapped of the flaring Range Resources Inc. well and burning pit liner was on display. "Once the situation got out of control, neither the drilling company nor the fire department ever came to our house to warn us about the fire and no evacuation order was issued."

She said Range Resources subsequently told her a liner fire had not occurred, but Matt Pitzarella, a spokesman for Range Resources, said Monday that the pit liner did catch fire but was controlled by the volunteer fire department that was paid by the company to be on site as gas was flared from all seven wells on the drill pad next to Ms. Chappel's property.

"When we had a fire on the liner, they were able to quickly put it out," Mr. Pitzarella said. "Where we did fail is in following through on our communications with her."

He said the liner fire was reported to the DEP, but the DEP was unable to confirm that Monday afternoon.

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., who chaired the hearing where industry and emergency safety experts also testified, cited a number of recent accidents at well drilling sites and said he soon will introduce legislation aimed at improving emergency response standards at oil and gas wells. Among the recent accidents was one Friday in Indiana Township, Allegheny County, in which two men died.

"These are basic procedures that should already be in place, fundamental health and safety procedures that make sense for people across the nation," Mr. Casey said.

The Faster Action Safety Team Emergency Response Act of 2010 would give the Occupational Health and Safety Administration authority to require the speedy notification of local and national emergency response agencies in the event of an accident, explosion or fire and require that a certified emergency response team be stationed within a one-hour drive of oil and gas well sites.

Ralph Tijerina, a Range Resources director and safety committee co-chair for the Marcellus Shale Coalition and the Pennsylvania Independent Oil and Gas Association, said the industry is working with the state fire commissioner to develop training models for emergency responders.

Anthony Iannacchione, director of the Mining Engineering Program in the University of Pittsburgh's Swanson School of Engineering, said government standards are needed but companies should be encouraged to proactively identify and manage the risks posed by well development.

"The risks are different in Clearfield County, where it's a remote location, and Allegheny County, in a populated area," Mr. Innacchione said. "The drilling plans shouldn't be the same because the risks are not the same."

Robert French, director of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, said the recent well "blowout" in Clearfield County and a fire at a well separator tank in Susquehanna County, show Marcellus Shale drilling poses risks. The state is addressing those risks, he said, by working on training programs with the industry and county emergency management coordinators.

He recommended that local emergency responders be notified when the state DEP issues drilling permits and that the list of chemical additives used in the hydraulic fracturing process be distributed so emergency responders can properly prepare.


Don Hopey: dhopey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1983.


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