Journalism in the Public Interest

Response to Pa. Gas Well Accident Took 13 Hours Despite State Plan for Quick Action

A Texas emergency response team was flown in to deal with a recent Pennsylvania gas well accident, even though the state arranged last year for a local team to be available.


The outside of a natural gas drill site owned by Chesapeake Energy in Leroy Township, Pa., on April 20, 2011. (The Daily Review-C.J. Marshall/AP Photo)

April 28: This post has been updated.

When Chesapeake Energy lost control of a Marcellus Shale gas well in Pennsylvania on April 19, an emergency response team from Texas was called in to stop the leak. By the time the team arrived more than 13 hours later, brine water and hydraulic fracturing fluids from the well had spewed across nearby fields and into a creek.

Why did a team have to be called in from Texas, as the Scranton Times Tribune has reported? That's what we're trying to figure out.

According to a plan that Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection announced in August 2010, a Pennsylvania-based emergency response crew should have been available to handle the blowout. The plan was created after Texas crews had to be called in to deal with two serious gas drilling accidents last summer. The first was a blowout at an EOG Resources well in Clearfield County on June 3 -- it took the Texans 16 hours to arrive at that site. The other was a fire at a Huntley & Huntley well in Allegheny County that killed two workers on July 23 -- the emergency responders showed up 11 hours later that time.

John Hanger, the DEP's former secretary, said at the time that the delay was unacceptable.

"When an accident occurs, we cannot wait 10 or more hours for a crew to fly in from halfway across the country," he said in a news release.

To remedy the situation, Hanger said that Texas-based CUDD Well Control would open a new facility in Bradford County and that 16 specially trained responders would be able to reach any well in Pennsylvania in five hours or so. If a well operator didn't respond promptly, the DEP would call in the CUDD team. Drilling companies could use CUDD, too.

The arrangement seemed to work. When a Talisman Energy well blew out in Tioga County on Jan. 17, the CUDD team had the well under control in less than four hours.

Dennis Corley, CUDD's vice-president, said he offered the company's services to Chesapeake after last week's blowout -- which occurred in Bradford County -- but was told that Chesapeake was already under contract with another emergency responder, Houston-based Boots & Coots.

Corley said the DEP did not request help from CUDD. The DEP, which is now led by Michael Krancer, didn't respond to calls and emails from ProPublica.

Rory Sweeney, a Chesapeake spokesman, said he didn't know why it took emergency responders more than 13 hours to arrive. He could neither confirm nor deny that the team that sealed the well late Thursday had come from Texas.

In a phone interview yesterday, Hanger said the state's agreement with CUDD was still in place when he left the DEP in January. The agreement "was put in place to make sure it was a matter of a few hours" before help arrived, Hanger said. "That was the point."

In a notice of violation issued to Chesapeake last week and published by The Daily Review, in Towanda, Pa., the DEP asked the company to explain why the response took so long.

Another question raised by last week's incident is what tests the DEP and Chesapeake are using to monitor the spill's effect on water and soil. In the notice of violation, the department asked Chesapeake for a full list of the chemicals it was using to hydraulically fracture the well. But Sweeney, the Chesapeake spokesman, said on Monday that the company hadn't yet reported the composition of the fracturing fluids to the department. He said Chesapeake is still determining exactly what was in the fluid that leaked to the surface. Despite that gap in knowledge, he said the spill has caused "minimal" harm to the local environment.

Sweeney directed us to a new website that companies are using to voluntarily disclose the hazardous components of their fracturing fluids. But the problematic well, called Atgas 2H, is not listed on that site. Other wells Chesapeake has drilled in Bradford County are listed, however, and they show a number of toxic chemicals, including 2-butoxyethanol, which can damage blood cells and vital organs. Those disclosures also list at least one proprietary ingredient, a component that the company has kept secret.

Sweeney said Chesapeake has replaced the damaged well head and is now considering whether to permanently plug the well or try to bring it into production. Chesapeake has voluntarily suspended all its hydraulic fracturing operations in the Marcellus Shale for the time being.

Update: When we first interviewed Chesapeake spokesman Rory Sweeney, he said he didn’t have any details about when Chesapeake responded to the Bradford County well blowout. After the story ran, however, he sent us an email saying that an in-house well control specialist arrived at the site within 30 minutes, with three more arriving in the next eight hours. He said they reduced the flow by about 70 percent before the Boots & Coots team arrived. "Chesapeake's response to the situation was immediate and did not take 12 hours as some have reported," Sweeney wrote.

ProPublica’s information about Chesapeake’s response time came from the "notice of violation" that the DEP sent to Chesapeake after the spill. In that document, the DEP asked the company to explain "why Chesapeake took 12 hours to have a well control service company at the site when there are other well control service companies located closer to Atgas 2H Well." In his original interview, Sweeney confirmed that the blowout began about 11:45 p.m. on April 19. According to the DEP document, Boots & Coots arrived at 1:25 p.m. the next day. Chesapeake said the leak was sealed on April 21 and the well was fully controlled on April 25.

suzanna twickler

April 26, 2011, 1:45 p.m.


On our symposium “Oil on the Waves”, april 20th 2011 in The Netherlands,  the question was raised: who should be in charge of an oil spill or oil/ gas disaster? It was remarkable that the contributors from EU countries were in favour of the government and the USA representative was in favour of the oil and gas companies, with a supportive role for the government.
Could this answer be relevant for the abovementioned case? Oil and gascompanies have different interests and there can be a conflict of interests with those of the government. The enforcement of law is a government task, as is the management of a disaster I think, with a supportive role of the oil and gas company.
Suzanna Twickler, Centre for Marine Policy Netherlands

Brilliant observation and thinking Suzanna!

Yep, gotta love that no regulation mentality and bottom line economics, just poison the rest of us!

My brother worked for a gas company drilling using Marcellus Shale in PA.
He told me that none of these gas wells will ever be shut down because of the employment. I hope he is wrong.

M. J. Sebetich

April 26, 2011, 7:05 p.m.

When will the gas companies have to compensate?

Hydraulic fracturing is essentially an old technology now being used in oil and gas exploration. It was invented many, many years ago but for different purposes. It started to be used for un-cased deep water wells through limestone. it is cheap to do and allows drolling to be aimed vertically, horizontally or bi-laterilly.

The problem is the chemicals used to do this drilling are carcenagenic but the EPA wasn’t aware, and still aren’t about the damage this drilling can do when it is over done such as the Marcellus Shaale and the oil wells in the Gulf of Mexico.

This is one thing that big business caught onto before the government and they have now polluted our world for the sake of gold.

Stanley R Scobie

April 26, 2011, 10:28 p.m.

The article states:

“...the department asked Chesapeake for a full list of the chemicals it was using to hydraulically fracture the well. But Sweeney, the Chesapeake spokesman, said on Monday that the company hadn’t yet reported the composition of the fracturing fluids to the department.”

Chesapeake WAS NOT fracturing the well. That is why they would not/could not report the fluid’s composition.

It seems to be not well understood that the drillers, like Chesapeake, drill only. And the frackers, like Halliburton, Schlumberger, etc,. come in and do the well sealing and the fracking. They know exactly what the chemicals were.

The industry is segmented, some would say so that no one can be quite pinned down as to blame if something goes wrong. In the Bradford County case whichever fracker was doing the job isnt mentioned and so now that company doesnt look bad.

ProPublica and other journalists would be doing a better service if they would untangle some of this so their readers would have a useful picture.

Stanley R Scobie, Ph.D., Binghamton, NY.

Some comforting words, as reported by The Associated Press:

“Dave Cesark of Mesa Energy in Grand Junction said the risk isn’t zero, but fracking has been used safely for decades.”

According to PA DEP and most of the news media, the Chesapeake blowout resulted in the discharge of flowback following a hydraulic fracturing operation.  The well was uncontrolled when a flange below the “frac stack” failed.  Chesapeake announced that they would voluntarily stop hydraulic fracturing at all their Marcellus shale wells.

Suzanna certainly makes a good point about who should be in control of a disaster situation.  Sounds to me like we should take this advice.  The discharge may have had a more significant impact, but the wet spring and the resulting high stream flows diluted the discharge, one stroke of luck in this situation.

“Dave Cesark of Mesa Energy in Grand Junction said the risk isn’t zero, but fracking has been used safely for decades.”

I dont’ find this comforting, I think this is the usual bull. Were they always using these chemicals? What’s this guy’s definition of safety? Could it be “we haven’t ruined an entire county’s water supply - yet”?.
But you know, we are always warned. There are always small accidents like this one where some twist of fate keeps it from being a huge issue. But just like oil drilling, it seems we don’t get tough about regulations until after a real catastrophe - if ever.

It is the little catastrophes that we let go by that lead up to the major ones.  It is always so easy to see in hindsight.  I wander how much more we have to know before we change the direction we are all headed?

Does anyone know of another method to get this gas out besides this Marcellus Shale. I seriously doubt that any gas company will give up this technique. Too many jobs are at stake.
I saw Gasland and I know how serious this Marcellus Shale is.
This film claimed that over 500 chemicals were used in this process.

Granted, “fracking” has been around and has been employed in the production of oil for literally decades.  However, with advent, development and perfection of “horizontal drilling”, the technique of fracking has taken on more ominous over tones.  Historically, oil well drilling has been done from a vertical—up and down-orientation.  The perfection of “horizontal drilling” permits drillers to not only drill vertically to a given depth, but, when the drilling operation reaches a prescribed depth, typically called the pay zone, the drilling can proceed on a horizontal path thru the pay zone paralleling the formation.  Historically, fracking chemicals were pumped from a vertical orientation with respect to the geological formations.  Now, however, with the advent of horizontal drilling, production chemicals to be pumped upward thru the formation to release the gas contained in heretofore “trapped” formations.  So yes, the process of fracking has indeed been around for decades, however, as employed with respect to “horizontal drilling”, fracking is a recent, i.e, 10-15 years, development.  Historically, when chemicals were applied to formations from a vertical orientation, the possibility of such chemicals reaching an aquifer was slim to none.  Such vertical applications required literally a fraction of chemicals being employed in a horizontal applications.

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:

Fracking: Gas Drilling’s Environmental Threat

The promise of abundant natural gas is colliding with fears about water contamination.

The Story So Far

The country’s push to find clean domestic energy has zeroed in on natural gas, but cases of water contamination have raised serious questions about the primary drilling method being used. Vast deposits of natural gas, large enough to supply the country for decades, have brought a drilling boom stretching across 31 states. The drilling technique being used, called hydraulic fracturing, shoots water, sand and toxic chemicals into the ground to break up rock and release the gas.

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