This article originally provided by The Charleston Gazette

June 9, 2010

Driller in W.Va. blast has history of violations

VICKI SMITH Associated Press Writer

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) - The Texas gas-drilling company that struck methane in an abandoned West Virginia coal mine and triggered an explosion that hurt seven workers has paid more than $226,000 in fines for federal safety violations over the past five years.

In every case, records show the original fines the Occupational Safety and Health Administration recommended for Fort Worth-based Union Drilling Inc. were later reduced, either through informal settlements or proceedings with an administrative law judge.

OSHA has done 20 inspections of Union Drilling operations around the country since February 2006, and 13 of those resulted in violations, said Leni Uddyback-Fortson, spokeswoman for Region 3 in Philadelphia.

She could not comment on whether the violation rate is unusual for the industry.

"The inspections and the citations that have resulted sort of speak for themselves," she said. "It shows that there is a history there."

Union has not responded to repeated telephone messages. It has not commented on the Monday morning explosion near Moundsville except to say it's cooperating with investigators.

Only two workers remained hospitalized Wednesday, and all are expected to recover.

A team from Texas-based rig-fire expert Wild Well Control has been moving damaged equipment as the venting methane burns off and will try to cap the well when the team can safely approach it. Union crews had drilled through the mine before without incident, and it's unclear what might have ignited the methane.

The state Department of Environmental Protection says the mine had been inactive since 1977.

Union was drilling the well for Chief Oil & Gas LLC of Dallas, Texas, which has a participation interest in the well with permit holder AB Resources of Brecksville, Ohio. The Union crew from Buckhannon had drilled only 1,000 feet toward the mile-deep Marcellus shale gas field when it hit the methane.

The DEP has no record of any violations in West Virginia by either Chief or AB Resources, spokeswoman Kathy Cosco said. Union was not listed as a responsible party, so it would not have been cited, but any violations would have been recorded against AB Resources.

But federal records show safety problems are common at Union sites.

In one pending case from August 2009, 22 violations were cited at a well in New Salem, Pa. OSHA has recommended more than $54,000 in fines, the largest a $15,000 penalty for failing to guard holes and floor or wall openings.

That violation, a common industry hazard, routinely shows up in OSHA's records for Union.

"The rigs are mobile and can be taken from site to site, and often the safety railing and walkways are not put in properly," Uddyback-Fortson said.

Union was also cited in the New Salem case for deficiencies in medical services and first aid, for exposing workers to falling objects by improperly modifying a wire rope hoist and for general safety infractions.

In more than half of the inspections that resulted in violations since 2006, OSHA recommended fines of more than $25,000, indicating either the number or severity of infractions, or the fact that it was a repeat or willful violation.

It is not uncommon to reduce those fines as part of a settlement package, Uddyback-Fortson said. Companies are also often required to correct problems by installing equipment or taking some other action.

"The most important thing is that the hazard is removed, that the workers are safe on the job," she said.

One of the highest fines - $31,000 for February 2008 violations in Smyrna, N.Y. - was later reduced to $9,000, OSHA records show. An April 2007 fine of $32,000 for violations in Rose Bud, Ark., was reduced to $7,000.

Three $25,000 fines in the Pennsylvania towns of Otter Creek, Meadville and Pymatuning were reduced to either $22,000 or $17,500.

Federal court records also show Union settled a 2008 negligence lawsuit in Arkansas earlier this year.

Two children, ages 3 and 9, were killed Dec. 16, 2007, when equipment on one of Union's mobile rigs failed on Joy Mountain. Investigators said the rig flipped onto a vehicle driven by Stephen Rose of Bald Knob, killing his children and injuring him and his wife.

The family had been headed for church.

Union reached a confidential settlement with the Roses on March 10.



Union Drilling:

Chief Oil & Gas:


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