State Ponders Penalties over Drilling Site Mishap
Monday, April 25, 2011
by Laura Olson
As workers on a Bradford County drilling site continued to prepare the now-stable well for a final protective seal, state environmental officials took a step toward assessing penalties for the accident.
Well-control specialists spent most of the day relieving pressure within the Chesapeake Energy well, a procedure that both company and Department of Environmental Protection officials said was not unusual. Those efforts were suspended late Friday afternoon, as rain began to fall, according to Chesapeake.
Company spokesman Rory Sweeney said they made "slow progress" toward completely plugging the well Friday, noting that no additional wastewater or gas had escaped since those leaks were stemmed Thursday evening.
Procedures to relieve well pressure are "something that is expected at this stage in the process" and raised no immediate concerns, DEP spokesman Dan Spadoni said.
Once the final seal is in place, Chesapeake can begin an investigation of why the well blew out during hydraulic fracturing late Tuesday night. That wellhead malfunction resulted in thousands of gallons of fracking wastewater spewing back to the surface, with some trickling into a tributary to Towanda Creek.
The well was continuing to leak wastewater Wednesday afternoon, when workers were able to put the briny fracking fluid in containers on the well pad. Neither the DEP nor company officials have estimated how much wastewater entered the tributary, though initial Chesapeake testing showed "minimal, if any" impacts on the waterway.
Incident reports posted on the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency's website stated that "approximately 30,000 gallons of fresh water leaked out of a gas well and into a secondary containment area in Leroy Township." A report issued Thursday also states that there are "no life safety or environmental concerns" from the accident.
A PEMA spokesman did not return a request Friday for additional information.
Chesapeake said it would account for the spilled wastewater as the investigation gets under way. "We're not done here when the well is finally sealed," Mr. Sweeney said.
For DEP officials, who have been involved in the accident response, the next investigatory steps are under way. The agency issued a notice of violation to Chesapeake on Friday, Mr. Spadoni said.
In the notice, the DEP asked the company to submit an analysis of what caused the equipment failure. The notice also stated that Chesapeake was expected to "be in a stand-down mode on hydraulic fracturing" as officials review what happened.
The company said it halted all post-drilling activities, which include hydraulic fracturing, "in order to conduct thorough inspections of wellheads used in completion operations throughout the Marcellus Shale."
But environmental advocates from PennFuture called on DEP Acting Secretary Michael Krancer to shut down all Chesapeake sites until the agency conducts its review.
Two Bradford County lawyers representing local residents who say they have contamination-related ailments made a similar plea Friday.
Mr. Spadoni said the DEP would "evaluate the information that is provided to us by Chesapeake" and decide what additional steps may be necessary.