Residents reported gas odors before explosion

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Property owners living near the site of a gas well operation that caught fire in Washington County Wednesday morning said they had been trying for days to reach state officials about noxious odors at the site.

George Zimmerman, who owns the property where an Atlas Energy wastewater impoundment pond caught fire on Wednesday, and neighbor Kyle Lengauer, said they experienced a "horrendous gas smell" in the days leading up to the fire, but they couldn't reach state officials to warn them.

"We actually left our house on Sunday because the fumes were so bad and we were so nauseated," said Mr. Lengauer, whose lives with his wife and two children on property that abuts Mr. Zimmerman's 480 acres in rural Hopewell.

Both men said they heard a loud explosion at about 8 a.m. Wednesday and saw an impoundment pond on fire with clouds of black smoke.

"I saw about a 100-foot flame -- you could see it seven miles away," said Mr. Zimmerman, who is embroiled in a lawsuit he filed against Moon-based Atlas Energy last year, alleging that the company "ruined his land with toxic chemicals," such as arsenic and benzene, used in hydraulic gas well fracturing.

Mr. Lengauer said he contacted a hotline for the state Department of Environmental Resources on Sunday, but was unable to reach agency officials because their voicemail boxes were full.

"I tried to call them for three days straight," said Mr. Lengauer.

The man-made, rubber-lined impoundments are used to collect wastewater that's produced from hydraulic fracturing of gas wells. Water, chemicals and sand are used in the fracturing process, which releases natural gas.

DEP spokeswoman Helen Humphries said a preliminary investigation indicated that gas on the surface of the wastewater may have ignited the 100-by-80-foot impoundment and nearby equipment.

Washington County Public Safety Director Jeff Yates said the county's hazardous materials team responded to the site and used foam to extinguish a fire at a holding tank that is used to separate water and sand near the impoundment. The impoundment's rubber liner was allowed to burn out on its own, he said.

Atlas Energy, which denies the claims made in Mr. Zimmerman's lawsuit, said in a statement on Wednesday that it would work to find the cause of the fire, which resulted in minor slip-and-fall injury to a contractor.

"We take this situation very seriously, and we are working with local and state officials to determine the cause of the fire and any potential impacts," said Jeffrey Kupfer, Atlas Energy's senior vice president. "We anticipate the resumption of normal operations in the near future."

Earlier this year, the DEP fined Atlas Energy $85,000 for failing to control erosion and runoff at six well sites and for not properly discharging waste products.

Janice Crompton: or 724-223-0156.


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