As multiple investigations continue into the fatal explosion and fire that killed two workers on a shallow oil and gas well in Indiana Township last week, state and federal regulators are also considering new, stricter regulations for burgeoning Marcellus Shale deep gas drilling operations.
Two hearings are planned today, one to review emergency response procedures and another on proposed state regulations.
The state Department of Environmental Protection, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Allegheny County fire marshal and Huntley & Huntley Inc., the Monroeville company that employed the workers, are investigating the cause of the Friday morning blast and blaze at the 2-year-old well in a wooded area off Rich Hill Road.
“It’s a tragic accident, but we have to know why it happened,” said Helen Humphreys, a DEP spokeswoman. “With these different entities looking at it from different directions, perhaps such a situation can be prevented or avoided in the future.”
The powerful explosion, which occurred as subcontractor workers were performing routine maintenance, blew a 12-by-8-foot storage tank about 70 yards from the site of the well.
One of the victims, Kevin Henry, 46, of New Florence, was identified by authorities Saturday, but the county medical examiner’s office said Sunday that a positive identification of the other victim won’t be made until they receive dental records today. Both men were burned beyond recognition. A third worker at the well site was uninjured.
“Friday’s incident was a tragedy, and I am determined to find out exactly what went wrong,” said County Executive Dan Onorato, who visited the well explosion site Friday. “I’ve always said that our natural gas deposits present an enormous economic opportunity — but that we only have one chance to get it right. That is why it’s so important to provide effective state oversight to ensure public safety and to protect the environment.”
Although the well explosion last week was at a shallow oil and gas well, not a deep Marcellus Shale well, it kept a spotlight on safety issues in the drilling industry. In June, an explosion and fire burned seven workers at a Marcellus Shale gas well near Moundsville in West Virginia’s northern panhandle.
A “blowout” also occurred at a Marcellus Shale well in Clearfield County that spewed gas, brine and “fracking fluid” — a mixture of water, sand and toxic chemicals — into the air for 16 hours.
The Clearfield accident did not cause a fire but could have been disastrous, according to the DEP, because proper emergency well shutdown equipment was not at the well site and the department was not quickly informed of the accident.
Today, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., will chair a field hearing to review existing emergency response procedures in the Marcellus Shale gas field states, including Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia, Ohio, Maryland and Virginia.
Testifying at the hearing — scheduled to take place at 10 a.m. in Courtroom 6A, on the sixth floor of the U.S. District Courthouse, Seventh and Grant streets, Downtown — will be Robert French, director of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, industry leaders and local residents.
Mr. Casey will also seek comment on legislation he plans to introduce to improve emergency response at oil and gas wells. The Faster Action Safety Team Emergency Response Act of 2010 gives OSHA the authority to draft regulations that would require an emergency response-trained employee to be present at the well during exploration and drilling, require a certified emergency response team to be available within a one-hour travel time of the well site and mandate well operators to contact emergency first responders no more than 15 minutes after an emergency situation begins and OSHA and the National Response Center within an hour.
Other safety issues involving drilling into Marcellus Shale a mile or more deep under three-fourths of Pennsylvania are addressed in proposed regulations that are the subject of a DEP and Environmental Quality Board hearing at 7 p.m., today in the state Department of Environmental Protection’s Waterfront Conference room A and B, 400 Waterfront Drive, Washington’s Landing (formerly Herrs Island).
The proposed regulations would toughen state rules for well casings or linings, cementing, testing and monitoring for gas migration into ground water, and plugging of wells after production ends. They would also update existing rules protecting public and private water supplies.
The complete proposed Oil and Gas Well Casing and Cementing regulations are available through at: www.pabulletin.com/secure/data/vol40/40-28/1248.html.