Methane pocket suspected in W.Va. gas well blast that injured 7; investigation to start soon

By Vicki Smith, AP
Monday, June 7, 2010

7 burned in W.Va. gas well blast likely to survive

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — A crew drilling a natural gas well through an abandoned coal mine in West Virginia’s Northern Panhandle hit a pocket of methane gas that ignited, triggering an explosion that burned seven workers, state and company officials said Monday.

The seven workers were taken to the West Penn Burn Center in Pittsburgh and were in fair condition, a hospital spokeswoman said. They are expected to recover.

The explosion happened about 1:30 a.m. in a rural area outside Moundsville, about 55 miles southwest of Pittsburgh. A column of fire shot at least 70 feet high, but the flames fell to 40 feet within hours. Gas continued to burn late Monday afternoon.

A team from Texas-based Wild Well Control, a company that specializes in rig fires, will decide whether to let the methane burn or try to extinguish the flames, said Kristi Gittins, spokeswoman for Dallas,Texas-based Chief Oil & Gas LLC.

The fire presents no danger to any structures or people, said Bill Hendershot, an inspector with the state Department of Environmental Protection’s Office of Oil and Gas.

The operation was less than a week old: DEP records show a permit was issued June 2 to AB Resources PA LLC of Brecksville, Ohio.

Gittins said AB Resources is the operator of the well, while Chief has a “participation interest.” It is Chief’s responsibility to drill and complete the well, she said.

Chief’s site contractor, Union Drilling of Buckhannon, had drilled the first 1,000 feet of a second well on the property and was preparing to install surface casing when crews apparently hit and ignited the methane, she said.

Crews had drilled through the abandoned Consol Energy mine before without incident, she said.

Methane is a known risk when working near old mines, and the company typically takes a variety of precautions, including venting systems. Gittins could not immediately say what precautions were in place at this site.

Prentice Cline, assistant area director for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in Charleston, said blowout preventers are typically required on gas rigs.

But DEP spokeswoman Kathy Cosco said the Union rig didn’t have one because it hadn’t yet reached a depth where a blowout preventer is required. When the accident occurred, it was still drilling a hole through rock, not pumping gas.

Blowout preventers are required when the driller has reached its target formation undergound or when a high volume of pressure can be expected, Cosco said.

Five of the injured workers were employed by Union and two worked for BJ Services Co. of Houston, Texas.

Union issued a statement saying it was “deeply concerned” about the explosion and the treatment of the injured. The company said it is cooperating with all investigators.

The BJ Services workers were among four that had just arrived on site to place the casing, said Gary Flaharty, a spokesman for the parent company, Baker Hughes Inc. of Houston. The crew runs a safety check at the start of each shift and was just preparing to do that when the blast occurred.

Flaharty could not provide any details about the injured employees but said they’re being treated for burns and are expected to survive.

OSHA area director Jeff Funke said he learned of the accident shortly after 8 a.m., and two investigators were dispatched. However, they cannot enter the site and begin work until the fire is out, he said.

OSHA created a program to deal with gas drilling in the vast Marcellus shale fields about five years ago and has been proactively inspecting sites to ensure compliance with safety regulations, he said. The gas reserve is about the size of Greece and lies more than a mile beneath New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio.

OSHA knew there would be a lot of drilling in West Virginia and Pennsylvania, “and we did our best to get out in front of that curve,” Funke said.

About 98 percent of the region’s drilling now involves Marcellus shale, he said.

Union owns 71 rigs and specializes in unconventional drilling techniques such as the horizontal drilling that is required to fracture tightly compacted rock and free the gas in Marcellus shale.

Gittins, the spokeswoman for Chief, said her company has drilled about 75 Marcellus wells in West Virginia and Pennsylvania so far, with about 15 of them in West Virginia.

This was the company’s first major accident, she said.

However, it’s the latest in a string of accidents related to the rapidly growing pursuit of Marcellus gas.

In Pennsylvania, environmental regulators are investigating what caused another well to spew explosive gas and polluted water for about 16 hours last week until it was brought under control.

A crew of eight was evacuated from the Clearfield County site Thursday, but no one was injured. That accident involved EOG Resources Inc. of Houston.


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AB Resources:

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