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State points to human error, bad communication in fatal Chevron well fire

| Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2014, 11:06 a.m.

An inexperienced “greenhat” gas worker loosening a bolt without proper supervision likely caused the leak that days later led to a fatal fire on a Chevron gas well in Greene County, state investigators said.

In two Department of Environmental Protection reports released on Wednesday, officials pointed to human error by the unnamed employee of contractor Cameron International Corp. with less than six months of experience as the likely culprit.

The DEP criticized Chevron for a lack of oversight on the Lanco well pad in Dunkard before the Feb. 11 incident, and poor communication with state officials in the hours and days afterward.

“We simply can't have that,” DEP spokesman John Poister said about company officials keeping information from state regulators and failing to include them in discussions. “DEP must be included. We have to know what they're talking about.”

Chevron said it is reviewing the reports, “and we look forward to the opportunity to discuss them with the DEP in the near future.”

“Chevron is committed to safe operations. We look forward to continuing to work with the Pennsylvania DEP and OSHA in order to fully understand what happened with this incident, and we are determined to prevent it from happening again,” the San Ramon, Calif.-based company wrote in an emailed statement.

A spokesman for Houston-based Cameron could not be reached.

The fire killed Cameron field service technician Ian McKee, 27, of Warren as he and another worker ran to the wellhead in response to a hissing sound they heard during a morning safety meeting. McKee had worked for Cameron for two years. His parents sued Chevron in June.

“I think the take-home message is that Chevron should have been more aware of what was going on at its own well. They were out of touch, and that's unfortunate,” said Downtown attorney John P. Gismondi, who represents the family.

In a March notice of violations issued to Chevron, DEP accused the company of blocking regulators and state responders from the well site on the first day of the incident.

Poister said DEP will meet with Chevron soon to discuss the new reports and the violation letter. No fines have been proposed.

“Our staff shouldn't have to argue their way into a site,” he said.

The report from DEP's Bureau of Investigations said employees of Chevron, Cameron and other companies were preparing to connect three wells on the site to pipes to bring them into production. A Cameron employee — dubbed in the report a “greenhat” for his lack of experience on a well site — helped a more experienced worker to “back out lock pins” from wellhead equipment to prepare it for connections.

Neither the experienced Cameron employee nor Chevron's well site manager properly observed the greenhat's work, investigators determined. The report found several deficiencies with Chevron's overall supervision of the site, noting some well site managers were ill-prepared or distracted at times. Some had background in food service instead of drilling. Some spent their time in a trailer doing paperwork.

The oversight “may have not been all it should have been,” Poister said.

Cold weather delayed the eventual wellhead connections by causing a tool to lodge below the surface of the 7H wellhead. Workers freed it Feb. 10. The wellhead blew the next morning, and investigators found the loosened parts 73 feet from the well on Feb. 26.

One of the DEP reports includes measures that Chevron and Cameron proposed to make wells safer, including more inspections, testing and better training around the equipment that was loosened at 7H.

In the days after the fire, Chevron stopped work on seven sites that had similar equipment pending closer inspections.

Other actions by Chevron during those days drew a rebuke from DEP.

A detailed timeline of the three weeks following the fire and a list of problems encountered by DEP cited several instances in which Chevron officials did not respond to regulators or “failed to continually provide meaningful update information.”

Poor cellphone service in the area and further communication problems among DEP, state police, Chevron and workers made the situation worse, investigators found.

“There was uncertainty about the location of the actual decision-making authority for the incident,” DEP wrote about Chevron's split operations at the site and at its Moon offices. “Chevron was not clear with DEP staff where such discussions were being held and which Chevron personnel had ultimate decision-making authority.”

Regulators will write procedures for dealing with such an event based on the reports, and clearly will define that state officials are in charge.

“We will use that as a template over the industry to say this is a problem we encountered at this incident and this is how we will operate,” Poister said.

David Conti is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-388-5802.

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