Burning questions at gas well

The flames shooting skyward in West Virginia left firefighters and operators of the Marcellus shale operation groping for answers

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MOUNDSVILLE, W.Va. -- When volunteer firefighters arrived early Monday at a gas-well explosion that sent flames soaring 60 feet skyward, they had no idea what challenges they faced.

They had never been trained to fight gas-well fires, and the company in charge, Chief Oil & Gas LLC, never instructed them how best to fight a fire fed by methane or natural gas.

During their rush to the remote site off Beam's Lane, four miles east of Moundsville, just off Route 250, they had only their wits and experience in general firefighting to guide them.

"We were going into something at 1:20 a.m., but we didn't know what we were going into," said Danny Holmes, chief of the Moundsville Volunteer Fire Department, one of 20 to respond.

Adding to the uncertainty, firefighters arrived to find a ball of flames piercing the night sky but could find no victims or company employees anywhere on the site.

Seven workers from BJ Tubular Services, of Houston, and Union Drilling Inc., headquartered in Fort Worth, Texas, were working on the well when it exploded sometime after 1 a.m. Two of the injured workers were employed by BJ Tubular and five by Union Drilling, said Kathy Cosco, a spokeswoman for the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection.

The drilling rig, 115 feet high, was extensively damaged when it fell onto its side with parts of it melted by intense flames. While unable to extinguish the blaze, fire crews did prevent it from spreading beyond the well pad to other equipment and storage trailers situated in a clearing in the wooded hollow.

The seven crew members suffered burns to their faces, chests, hands and arms. Marshall County Sheriff's Office Chief Deputy Kevin Cecil noted some had sustained third-degree burns.

But no one was at the site when firefighters arrived because the crew, whom Chief Oil & Gas officials refused to identify, piled into vehicles after the explosion and fire and drove themselves to Reynolds Memorial Hospital in Glendale, just north of Morgantown.

Several were transferred to Ohio Valley General Hospital, and eventually all were taken by ambulances to West Penn Hospital Burn Center in Pittsburgh because early morning fog was too thick for helicopters to take off from the hospitals in West Virginia's Northern Panhandle.

One was released Monday, said Stephanie Waite, spokeswoman for West Penn-Allegheny Health Systems, and the rest are in fair condition with injuries that do not appear to be life-threatening.

The closest residence was situated about a quarter-mile from the drilling site, so no evacuation of residents was necessary. However, Route 250 at Beam's Lane remained closed to traffic for 13 hours.

Officials from the West Virginia DEP, Occupational Safety and Health Administration and Mine Safety and Health Administration were at the site to investigate the cause of the explosion and fire. Firefighters also will remain at the site until the fire burns itself out or is extinguished.

Ms. Cosco said reports from the scene indicate the drilling may have gotten into the Alexander Mine, where it hit a pocket of methane gas. She said the Alexander Mine is inactive and owned by Pittsburgh-based Consol Energy.

Kristi Gittins, spokeswoman for Chief Oil & Gas, said drilling through pockets of methane does occur but the company never before had an explosion or unexpected fire occur at any of its 75 wells. What sparked the blast remains a mystery. Smoking is prohibited at drilling sites, and she said the company knew about the mine, had met requirements in investigating the site and in filing plans with the West Virginia DEP on the drill path into the Marcellus shale formation.

One well already had been drilled at that pad. The explosion occurred early in the drilling operation for a second well.

"We did know we were drilling in an abandoned coal mine," Ms. Gittins said. "We had the maps. But when you are drilling, you can encounter pockets of gas. But what happened? We don't know."

Union Drilling has a history of 29 workplace safety violations at drilling sites in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Arizona, Colorado and New York since July 2005, for which it paid more than $226,000 in penalties, according to the federal Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration's online inspections database.

The well was permitted to AB Resources of Brecksville, Ohio, the operator, but owned by Dallas-based Chief Oil & Gas, which since 2007 has drilled approximately 15 other Marcellus shale gas wells in West Virginia and about 60 in Pennsylvania. A subsidiary, Chief Gathering LLC, also operates natural gas pipelines in Bradford, Clearfield, Fayette, Lycoming and Susquehanna counties in Pennsylvania.

Ms. Gittins said drilling had progressed to about 1,000 feet deep when the explosion occurred.

"Nothing we did was unusual or unexpected. What caused the fire has yet to be determined, but you can hit pockets of gas, that's not uncommon," Ms. Gittins said. "We had it contained fairly quickly, the area was secured, there was no evacuation and the damage was limited to the [well] pad site."

She said Chief has used Union Drilling for seven to 10 years, "and this is the first incident we've had."

The well continues "flaring," or burning, gas "which is what you want to happen," she added.

During a late afternoon news conference Monday, officials said that Wild Well Control officials from Houston arrived at the scene about 1 a.m. with expectations of extinguishing the blaze within days.

Ms. Gittins acknowledged that Chief Oil & Gas had not contacted firefighters or emergency officials in West Virginia prior to drilling but now plans to meet with officials. She said the company had met with emergency officials in Pennsylvania prior to drilling there.

Despite a lack of training in gas-well fires, volunteer firefighters were able to prevent the blaze from spreading off the pad. Late Monday, crews were busy removing equipment from the site, with additional plans to drain holding ponds on the property.

The West Virginia explosion is the second major accident at a Marcellus shale drilling operation in four days. On Friday, natural gas and drilling fluids containing toxic pollutants escaped in a "blowout" from a Marcellus shale well operated by EOG Resources in Clearfield County on private property adjacent to the Moshannon State Forest.

Anya Sostek contributed. Don Hopey: dhopey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1983. David Templeton: dtempleton@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1578.


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