An equipment failure on a Marcellus Shale natural gas well in northeastern Pennsylvania late Tuesday night caused a blowout, allowing thousands of gallons of chemically laced hydraulic fracturing fluid to flow from the site for at least half a day.
More than 16 hours after the blowout began at 11:45 p.m. Tuesday, frack fluid was still spewing out of the Chesapeake Energy well in Bradford County, county and state officials said.
Seven families who live adjacent to the site in Leroy were evacuated as a precaution, and a local farmer was told to not let his cows drink surface water on his farm, officials said.
The first sign of a problem Tuesday night was that the well lost pressure, which "means something broke," said Francis Roupp, deputy director of Bradford County Emergency Management, which was assisting the response.
The company began drilling this well Dec. 22, 2010, and it could be one of six wells on this well site, according to Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection records.
Subcontractors for Chesapeake, one of the state's larger Marcellus Shale drillers, were in the midst of "well completion," the company said.
After the lost pressure, thousands of gallons of fracturing fluid began bubbling up from the well, though it was never a geyser, said DEP spokeswoman Katy Gresh.
The company said no one was injured and no natural gas had been emitted.
Exactly what caused the blowout won't be known until it is stopped and investigators can check out the well, Ms. Gresh said.
In hydraulic fracturing, up to 5 million gallons of fluid is injected into the well to help fracture the shale rock a mile below the surface, releasing the natural gas inside the rock.
Ninety-nine percent of the fluid is typically sand and water, with less than 1 percent of it made up of a cocktail of potentially hazardous chemicals that help in the fracturing process -- though with 5 million gallons, 1 percent could be as much as 50,000 gallons of chemicals.
Companies are required to notify state and local officials immediately of accidents such as this, but Ms. Gresh said DEP was not notified about the problem until 1:10 a.m., and Mr. Roupp said Bradford County didn't get a call until almost 2 a.m.
Chesapeake released only a written statement Wednesday and did not respond to interview requests.
Ms. Gresh said it took till mid-afternoon Wednesday for Chesapeake's crews to stop the fracturing fluid from running into a nearby tributary of Towanda Creek -- a state-designated trout stock fishery that eventually flows into the Susquehanna River.
DEP staffers were on the scene all day Wednesday testing the unnamed tributary and looking for environmental impacts.
"So far there's no evidence of an aquatic life kill," she said.
Chesapeake's crews eventually used heavy machinery to contain the spill and direct the continual flow into a large impoundment, Ms. Gresh said.
The company said it had hired Houston-based Boots & Coots well control specialists to come out and "respond if necessary."
DEP records show that Chesapeake has been fined seven times for a total of $61,101 over the last three years -- which makes it tied with Range Resources for the second-highest number of fines in the state next to Chief Oil & Gas, which had nine.
Five of Chesapeake's seven fines were for problems at wells in Bradford County, three of which were for different types of spills on well sites.
Despite that, Leroy officials said Chesapeake has been a responsive company when there have been problems there.
"Chesapeake has been pretty good," said Harold Shedden Jr., a township supervisor who also works part time grading the township's dirt roads. "If something goes wrong, they fix it. They broke our roads and they fixed it."
He said from what he has been told about Tuesday's blowout, "I don't think it will really do any damage, other than pollute the stream."
Despite Chesapeake's responsiveness, he said the influx of Marcellus Shale drillers -- he said there are at least eight well sites within four miles of his home -- has been a double-edged sword.
"Everything has gone up [in price] since they moved in here, gas, gravel, food. And no normal person could afford to rent a house up here now," he said. "So, in a way it has helped and in a way it hasn't."
Sean D. Hamill: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2579. First Published April 21, 2011 4:00 AM