Tragedy dissected: A fatal well fire holds lessons for the future

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The fatal Chevron gas well fire in Dunkard, Greene County, on Feb. 11 left a lot of questions and concerns. This week the state Department of Environmental Protection released its “After Action Review” of the accident and a separate investigation report that answered some but not all of them.

It started with a hissing sound at 6:45 a.m. that day. Employees from the contractor, Cameron International, went to investigate and natural gas leaking under high pressure ignited. One worker was injured and the other, Ian McKee, 27, was killed, although his remains were not found for days.

What is still not known is the precise source of ignition for the fire, which spread to an adjacent well and burned for five days before both wells were capped.

What has been identified is a possible cause of the leaking gas. An inexperienced worker, a so-called “greenhat” not properly trained or supervised, may have committed an error in loosening equipment on the wellhead in preparation for production. On Feb. 11, one of the lock pins was ejected from the well, allowing gas to escape.

In the DEP review and the report by its investigatory unit, Chevron’s behavior is faulted in several ways. The review criticized Chevron for how it communicated with the state and the media.

Not well. DEP initially found itself shut out. As DEP spokesman John Poister said in a briefing Tuesday, Chevron’s behavior was “simply unacceptable.” He said the company was “not forthright. They did not let us into strategy meetings.”

It was bad enough that an innocent worker died. For a time, Chevron, which received nine citations and is being sued by Mr. McKee’s family, acted as if it were the sole stakeholder. Its failures were not just technical, but also in the realm of public and governmental relations.

Chevron says it is committed to safe operations, but the review’s recommendations need to be heeded by all. Only then will the lessons of this tragedy be learned.

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