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Crews removing charred equipment, vehicles from well fire in Greene County

Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
The fire at the Chevron Corp. natural gas well in Dunkard, Greene County, burned for days. An accident at the site near Bobtown on Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2014, ignited an explosion that killed one worker.

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Thursday, Feb. 13, 2014, 2:21 p.m.

DUNKARD — Snow showers and sporadic bursts of flaming gas slowed efforts to extinguish and cap a blazing gas well in rural Greene County and hampered efforts to find a missing worker presumed dead, state officials said on Thursday.

Specialists from Wild Well Control Inc. of Houston began dragging away the charred shells of vehicles and equipment around the Chevron Corp. site near the West Virginia line as part of a plan to cap the well and stop the flow of natural gas, Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection Secretary E. Christopher Abruzzo said.

Once they remove the equipment, which could serve as potential ignition and fuel sources if the fire spreads, workers can remove a scorching hot truck that continues to reignite the gas flowing from one of the two wells that began burning after an explosion early Tuesday, Abruzzo said.

“The good news is, they've made progress,” he said. “The weather has created some challenges to that effect. We'd initially said the well might be capped by Friday, but that projection might move out a couple of days with conditions on the ground.

“We're optimistic that by (Friday) morning, they will have most of the equipment removed.”

One of the three wells on the pad initially caught fire but has burned itself out. A second well continued to leak gas. Water used in hydraulic fracturing was bubbling up from the well and possibly extinguishing the flames, but when the gas reaches the hot metal of the nearby truck, it reignites, causing a cycle of booming bursts of horizontal flame every few seconds, Abruzzo said.

Though they occasionally were able to get close to the pad, Wild Well personnel weren't able to explore enough of the area to locate the missing worker from Houston-based Cameron International Corp.

Cameron International is the company that manufactured the “blowout preventer” that failed to stop the oil gushing from the 2010 BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

State Sen. Timothy Solobay said he has been satisfied with the emergency response.

Wild Well Control workers flew in from Houston because no one locally has the specialized training for fighting gas well fires. They had equipment stored locally, which took several more hours for them to mobilize and get to the burning well.

“Because of the infrequency of these things happening, it makes it harder to have (responders) everywhere,” said Solobay, D-Canonsburg, who stopped in Bobtown to speak with Chevron officials. “Six hours is not a bad response time, when you think of where they had to come from.”

“I don't think the delay in time is going to be regarded as significant in how they're containing this well,” Abruzzo said.

Abruzzo and DEP spokesman John Poister said Chevron and the DEP had air monitors around the site in Dunkard, including at several homes within a mile of the well. Poister said some of the monitors would sample the air for about 24 hours, then be taken to a lab in Harrisburg for a rush analysis. Abruzzo said that there was no gas found beyond the well site, and that although the booming of the well's re-ignitions is noticeable, they pose no danger.

“The Chevron folks believe this is par for the course,” he said.

Joe Osborne, legal director of the environmental activist nonprofit Group Against Smog and Pollution, said it was small comfort that the fire was burning off the methane gas coming from the well. A flare, which does the same thing in a controlled way, is more efficient and safe, he said.

“If the choice is between emitting combustible gas directly into the atmosphere or flaring that gas, flaring is almost always the better option,” Osborne said.

Abruzzo said that all of the well site's required spill containment measures remained in place, so nearby streams and homes won't be threatened if the Wild Well team uses water or chemicals to extinguish the fire.

The DEP cited Chevron's operation at the site in December for doing some work on the pad without obtaining the proper permit. Workers built a pipeline across the pad and access road without permission.

Abruzzo said he did not think that work had any connection to the explosion, which occurred when workers were connecting the well to a network of pipes to carry gas from the site.

“That's not giving us any pause,” he said.

Solobay said it was fortunate that the site was so rural that no homes or businesses had to be evacuated. He said the DEP may have to study the fire more closely to measure the “danger zone” of the heat and smoke around the well site to formulate any guidelines for required setbacks between wells and occupied structures.

Matthew Santoni is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Staff writerTim Puko contributed to this report.

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