DEP access: The state should not be barred from drill sites

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Given the sensitivity associated with deep drilling for natural gas — fracking — it is easy to understand that when a mishap occurs at well sites, companies might want to handle the situation themselves. Controversy doesn’t like company.

Easy to understand, but not easy to condone. Fracking is controversial enough without barring those who should be there when something goes wrong.

On Feb. 11, in Dunkard, Greene County, something went fatally and spectacularly wrong. A Marcellus Shale gas well exploded and burned for five days. One worker — Ian McKee, 27, an employee of Cameron International who was working for the well owner, Chevron Corp. — was killed.

Now we learn that for two days after the accident, Chevron refused to allow investigators in an emergency response team from the state Department of Environmental Protection to come onto the site — this despite the permit for the well stipulating that the operators should allow “free and unrestricted access” to a properly identified DEP employee.

That is outrageous. It took the arrival of DEP Secretary Chris Abruzzo, reminding the company of its legal obligations, before Chevron relented. Until then, DEP had to take air samples from locations farther away.

Chevron’s excuse, relayed through a spokesman, was that “Chevron’s first priority was to ensure the safety of all responders and prevent additional injuries” and therefore access to the site “during the initial stages of the incident was restricted. ... No one, including Chevron personnel, was permitted access to the pad on the day of the incident, until experts ... arrived on the scene and were able to assess the situation.”

Thanks for the concern, but Chevron was breaking the law. DEP could have called the state police and forced its way onto the property, but it decided that a confrontation did not further the goal of dealing with the crisis. Fair enough, but it does raise the question of who is ultimately in charge of drilling in this state.

DEP has brought nine citations against Chevron as a result of the incident — one of them specifically dealing with the illegal failure to allow DEP staff access. If a similar situation occurs in the future, state officials should not be so patient.

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