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One of two Greene well fires still burning; worker remains missing

| Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014, 9:30 a.m.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
The fire at the Chevron Corp. natural gas well still burns, Wednesday in Dunkard Township in Green County, after an accident Tuesday ignited the well leaving one person injured and another still missing.

DUNKARD — A team of specialists could have a blazing gas well extinguished and capped by Friday, days after an explosion rocked a rural part of Greene County on Tuesday, likely killing a worker, state officials said on Wednesday.

One of two burning wellheads at a Chevron Corp. site near the West Virginia line extinguished itself that afternoon, about a day after the blast, while a specialized well control crew planned its attack. Workers could be confronting a fire that an expert said could be as hot as 3,600 degrees Fahrenheit at a blast site where state officials presume one missing man has been killed.

“There were folks who got close to the well pad to see if they could find him, but they could only get so close,” said E. Christopher Abruzzo, secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection.

The continuing fire highlighted safety concerns that have lingered in Pennsylvania for years, since the Marcellus shale boom brought a deluge of drillers not seen in the state in more than 100 years.

The DEP had said after a blast in 2010 that it was helping to ensure specialized well control teams would be in Pennsylvania no more than five hours transit time from any part of the state, but Chevron's team came from Houston on a trip that may have taken more than nine hours.

“I cannot answer questions and make promises that the Rendell administration made,” Gov. Tom Corbett said during an unrelated news conference in Allegheny County, adding that state regulators will review Chevron's response time. “It's a new industry for us. We're learning it. ... But we also look for the companies to help improve this. If there's something to be improved, let's learn from the mistake in the past.”

Of the 19 workers accounted for, one had suffered minor injuries and was released from the hospital on Tuesday.

State Rep. Pam Snyder, D-Waynesburg, said the missing man worked for Houston-based Cameron International Corp., the contractor at the Dunkard well site at the time of the explosion.

“We're still working on getting those facts,” Cameron spokeswoman Sharon Sloan said, referencing information about the man.

‘A textbook response'

The explosion happened above ground shortly before 7 a.m. Tuesday while crew members were having a safety meeting, Abruzzo and Snyder said. The site has three wells near Fayette County, about 70 miles south of Pittsburgh.

Workers were connecting the drilled wells to a network of pipes to carry natural gas from the site, a DEP spokesman said.

Similar Marcellus shale wells typically produce 5 million to 20 million cubic feet of natural gas in their first days, and an exploded well is basically the same as opening a well full-bore, said Turgay Ertekin, a petroleum and natural gas engineering professor at Penn State University.

If two wells were on fire, then double that amount could have been spewing from the well, likely burning at temperatures between 700 and 2,000 degrees Celsius, he said, or as much as 3,632 degrees Fahrenheit.

“Our plans include efforts to control the well by shutting off the flow of natural gas and taking all appropriate procedures to protect the other (two) wells on the pad,” Chevron spokeswoman Lee Ann Wainright said on Wednesday, adding that the company has found no risk to the public.

Houston-based Wild Well Control Inc. arrived on Tuesday evening to begin working out a plan to extinguish the fire. The DEP issued conflicting statements about when the crew had arrived.

John Hanger, a former DEP secretary and Democrat who is running in the gubernatorial primary, blamed the Corbett team for not following through on a DEP deal to get a well fire response team based in Pennsylvania.

“We told the (drillers) who had (state) permits that they better have a deal with these folks. We don't want you calling Houston when a well has lost control,” Hanger said.

Abruzzo said the response time had no impact on containing the blaze, a claim that Ertekin and another industry experts said is likely true. The company was working with Chevron officials on Wednesday to devise a plan for capping the wells.

“There was nothing necessarily Wild Well could have done if they were here an hour, two hours or three hours earlier,” Abruzzo said. “From what I can tell right now, this appears to be a textbook response we are looking for with an incident like this.”

Wild Well Control referred inquiries to Chevron. Chevron spokesman Trip Oliver said its “technical capabilities, processes and approach are best suited for the effort at hand.”

Only 1% of all wells

Such incidents happen at only 1 percent of all wells, so there isn't enough work to support crews based in several popular drilling areas, said Richard Hatteberg, a 50-year industry veteran whose career included capping oil wells that Saddam Hussein's army set ablaze in the Gulf War.

The United States has just three companies prominent in this work, and they all send their core personnel from Houston, even to sites as far away as South America and Africa, he said.

They have satellite offices in the Appalachian basin — Wild Well Control's closest is in Canonsburg — but they're primarily there for equipment, Hatteberg said.

It's critical that equipment needed to fight well fires is readily available at satellite offices, Ertekin said.

“When you get there, you're always waiting on people in the area to get their trucks together, get to the location. You're waiting on the cranes to come in. You're waiting on this or that,” said Hatteberg, senior well control specialist at the Halliburton outfit Boots & Coots. “It normally takes 24 hours to get everything on location, just from the locals.”

Timothy Puko and Jason Cato are staff writers for Trib Total Media. Reach Puko at 412-320-7991 or tpuko@tribweb.com. Reach Cato at 412-320-7936 or jcato@tribweb.com.

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