This article originally provided by Wheeling News-Register

June 9, 2010

Methane Explosion Raising Questions

LIMESTONE - The cause of a methane gas explosion and subsequent fire that injured seven drill workers in Marshall County remains unknown.

However, local officials are already asking what could be done to aid emergency responders in future situations.

Flames on Tuesday continued to rise from the natural gas drilling site on Beam's Lane, about 3.5 miles east of Moundsville, where seven employees from BJ Tubular Services of Houston and Union Drilling Inc. of Fort Worth, Texas, suffered serious burns after an explosion early Monday.

A section of U.S. 250 was shut down after the blast sent flames about 75 feet into the air. Twenty fire department crews and two emergency management teams from Marshall and Belmont counties were called to the scene to battle the blaze.

Kristi Gittins, spokeswoman for Chief Oil and Gas in Wexford, Pa., the company that owns the site, said the two companies were contracted by Chief Oil and Gas to drill for natural gas through an abandoned coal mine owned by Consol Energy.

The crew had been "pulling a drill string out of the drilling hole to prepare for laying surface casing" when the methane gas ignited causing the explosion, Gittins said.

The crew was aware there was methane gas in the area, she said.

Gittins said workers had been drilling in the area for several days before the explosion. She said the workers had drilled to a little deeper than 1,000 feet when they hit a "shallow pocket" of methane gas in the mine.

On Monday after local firefighters had kept the blaze contained for nearly 12 hours, a team from Texas-based Wild Well Control, a company that works directly with Chief Oil and Gas and specializes in rig fires, arrived at the scene and dismissed local emergency responders.

Gittins said Tuesday the fire was contained to the work area, but the company will not be able to cap the drilling site for another three to four days.

"Our well control specialists are continuing to move equipment from the drilling site," Gittins said.

After all of the equipment is moved, Gittins said the company will then bring in special equipment to disassemble the drilling rig.

Gittins said the rig was heavily damaged from the explosion and is no longer operable.

Moundsville Volunteer Fire Chief Danny Holmes, the first to arrive at the scene, said his crew walked into a very chaotic situation on the morning of the fire.

"There were a few people running around," Holmes said. "But no one identified themselves. On the way to the scene, we had passed several speeding vehicles, which we later determined were the explosion victims."

Holmes said he finally stopped a man at the scene who he thinks may have been a supervisor.

"I asked him if all of his employees were accounted for and he said yes," he said.

The flames were within about 50 feet of several fuel tankers and other combustible materials, so fire crews immediately began working to contain the fire, Holmes said.

"At that point we started to protect everything around the fire," Holmes said. "Our job as firefighters is to protect life and property, so that is what we did."

Holmes said his crews did not attempt to put out the fire, because that is not the proper procedure when dealing with a gas burning.

"We did not know how much gas was in the ground," Holmes said. "If we had started pushing the fire down with water, we could have ended up with another explosion under the ground."

Emergency Management Director Tom Hart said Tuesday crews handled the situation exactly the way they are trained.

"The fire department's job is to just contain the fire until the companies send in their own personnel," Hart said.

"These firefighters go through training all of the time - it is required," Hart said. "They did what they were trained to do and they did a good job."

Hart is hoping this explosion and the county's ability to respond may be a lesson in how to better work with outside gas companies coming into Marshall County to drill.

Hart said Tuesday, county officials had not been told about drilling on Beam's Lane or been given any information about how many employees were even working at the site.

"No formal details of the drilling operation had been given to our department," Hart said. "We knew drilling was going on, but it was from word of mouth, not Chief Oil and Gas."

"We would like to work with the gas companies to develop better protocols for incidents like this explosion," Hart said. "We have already talked about working directly with the DEP, possibly through their permit department, to be informed of locations of drills."

Hart said currently only a few gas companies provide his department with information about drilling sites.

Hart said his department will be releasing an "after action report," which will address any issues that occurred during emergency response to Monday morning's incident.

"There definitely needs to be a better line of communication between the county and the gas companies," said Marshall County Commissioner Jake Padlow. "The line of communication between Union Drilling and Chief Oil and Gas is where the problem lies. The lines need to be open between groups and information needs to be shared.

"I do take some of the blame that we have not pushed these companies harder to provide us with information."

Padlow believes there was a failure in the fact that emergency responders had no information about how many workers were at the site and there was no immediate contact person identified at the location of the blast.

"Tom Hart, Sheriff Gruzinskas and the county commissioners are going to demand more detailed information from companies about these drilling sites," Padlow said.

"I have definitely become more leery," Padlow said. "We might have been behind the eight ball on this one."

Padlow did commend firefighters for their efforts.

"Our local firefighters did exactly what they were supposed to do," Padlow said.

County officials also intend to collect payment from the companies involved in Monday mornings incident, for all resources used to fight the blaze, Padlow said.

Padlow said the numerous departments that responded to the scene will be compiling a cost inventory.

Gittins said Tuesday afternoon her company is more than willing to work with local officials.

"We do need to have training with local emergency personnel," Gittins said. "We can always provide more education as a company and industry. It is unfortunate any time there is an accident.

"We want to get down to the details of what happened and what caused the explosion," she said.

Gittins said Chief Oil and Gas has been drilling in Marcellus Shale for more than a decade without any incidents. Chief Oil and Gas currently has 15 gas wells in West Virginia and another 60 wells in Pennsylvania, Gittins said. Chief Oil and Gas has not released the names of the victims, but Gittins said five of the workers had been released from West Penn burn center in Pittsburgh by Tuesday evening.

The other two men remained hospitalized with serious but non-life threatening injuries, Gittins said.

All seven of the burn victims had been transferred to West Penn by ambulance personnel after being driven in private vehicles by fellow co-workers to Reynolds Memorial Hospital in Glen Dale and Ohio Valley Medical Center in Wheeling.


West Virginia Surface Owners' Rights Organization
1500 Dixie Street, Charleston, West Virginia 25311