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Three hurt in gas well explosion

February 24, 2011
From staff and wire reports

INDEPENDENCE, Pa. - An explosion and fire at a gas well injured three workers Wednesday night, authorities said.

The blast, at the Chesapeake Appalachia LLC Powers site in Avella, near Meadowcroft Road and First Street, was reported at about 6:20 p.m., Washington County emergency officials said.

Workers were transferring water used in a gas-extraction process called hydraulic fracturing, and several of the natural gas liquids storage tanks caught fire, said Katy Gresh, a spokeswoman for the Department of Environmental Protection's southwest region.

Article Photos

AVELLA FIRE — This frame grab from video provided by shows the gas well in Avella that exploded and caught fire injuring three workers Wednesday. -- Associated Press

During hydraulic fracturing, also called fracking - water mixed with sand and chemicals, some of them toxic - is forced into the wells at high pressure, shattering the underground shale and releasing trapped gas. Residents in several communities where fracking occurs have voiced concerns about possible water contamination and other safety issues, but the gas companies say the procedure has been used safely for decades.

Two workers were flown to hospitals after Wednesday night's explosion, and another was taken by ambulance, Gresh said. The extent of their injuries was not immediately known. The fire was reported extinguished at 9:30 p.m.

Gresh said the three wells at the Western Pennsylvania site appeared to be unaffected but that will be confirmed as an investigation begins today to determine the cause of the blast.

Company spokesman Stacey Brodak said emergency responders were keeping the natural gas liquids storage tanks cool. He said the wells already had been completed and there was no danger to the public or the environment.

Jacque Bland, a media relations specialist for Chesapeake Energy, said Boots and Coots International Well Control, a private firefighting company specializing in response to such incidents, also was called to the scene.

Officials with Chesapeake advised Brooke County emergency officials in January the company would take the lead in such emergencies, should they occur.

The natural gas drilling company has obtained permits to drill in four areas near Bethany and West Liberty in Brooke County.

Many fire departments, including some from Brooke County, responded to the fire, emergency officials noted.

Brodak said he was unable to provide an update on the conditions of the workers, but "our thoughts and prayers are with them and their families for a full recovery."

Franklin Community Fire Chief Larry Palmer said many members of the department were called because it has a mutual aid agreement with the Avella Fire Department.

Palmer said a few members of eight other Brooke County fire departments joined many Washington County fire departments and the county's hazardous materials team in extinguishing the blaze, which was limited to the tanks.

Because the fire occurred in a rural area, many water tankers, including several from Brooke County, were called, he said.

Palmer said firefighters on the scene included ones trained in rapid intervention, or assisting firefighters who become at risk while fighting fires, but he wasn't aware of any firefighters being harmed during the blaze.

He said once the fire was extinguished, firefighters watered the tanks to keep them cool and prevent it from reigniting and used thermal imaging cameras to detect any hot spots.

Palmer said personnel from Boots and Coots weren't on the scene, perhaps because they deal primarily with fires emanating from wells.

Recently, there has been much discussion in the Northern Panhandle regarding the potential value of natural gas liquids. Bayer Corp. would like to bring an ethane cracking plant to the Upper Ohio Valley. The "cracker" plant would process ethane, turning it into ethylene for use in plastics.

Caiman Energy, MarkWest Liberty and Dominion Transmission also are processing, or planning to process, natural gas liquids at facilities in Marshall and Wetzel counties.

Though this accident involves NGL tanks, it is not the Tri-State Area's first gas-related accident. An AB Resources well about 6 miles south of Moundsville exploded in June, after workers penetrated a methane pocket in an abandoned coal mine.

The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection ultimately cited AB Resources for failing to set casing at the permitted depth for the site and for inaccurately reporting coal seam depth.

A Chesapeake gas well on Pleasants Ridge near Cameron ignited in September.

For this incident, DEP officials cited Chesapeake for "failing to prevent the release of natural gas and the potential pollution of waters of the state."

There have also been numerous traffic accidents involving gas rigs being transported on narrow roads.

And some residents have complained about possible water contamination and air pollution caused by the heavy drilling activity in Marshall and Wetzel counties.

(Staff writers Warren Scott and Casey Junkins contributed to this story.)

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