Preparedness Is Top Priority for Local First Responders at Gas Well Emergencies

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
2 June 2011
By Janice Crompton

Know the difference between a rat hole and a mouse hole? How about a monkey board and a Geronimo line?

These may sound like terms in an exterminator's handbook -- or perhaps on a children's playground -- but for Marcellus Shale gas workers, they are a part of the daily lingo that could save lives.

A group of about 60 Washington County first responders learned that in a recent gas well emergency course sponsored by the Office of the State Fire Commissioner at the Avella Volunteer Fire Department.

For the uninitiated: Mouse and rat holes refer to borings beneath a rig floor where pipes and other equipment are stored. A monkey board is a working platform, which can be as high as 90 feet, and a Geronimo line serves as an escape line to the ground.

As more Marcellus Shale wells begin sprouting up along the landscape of southwestern Pennsylvania, so too do the dangers.

Preparing for every eventuality -- whether it's workplace injuries or deep well blowouts, fires and explosions -- has become the top priority for first responders, who have had to rethink strategies and instincts to battle natural gas emergencies.

"Firefighters are taught to be aggressive, but in that kind of emergency you can't be aggressive," said James Geresti, assistant chief of the Avella department, who learned more about the difference between a gas well blowout and other types of blazes.

In February, members of his crew answered a call at a Marcellus gas well site less than a mile from their firehouse, in which three workers were severely burned by a tank fire.

The drilling company, Chesapeake Energy, was recently fined $188,000 -- the highest fine that could be issued under current law -- by the state Department of Environmental Protection for the Avella fire.

Two of the workers who suffered burns in the fire also recently sued Chesapeake and two of its subcontractors, saying they were negligent for failing to take steps to identify flammable vapors at the well site and establish plans for how the vapors would be stored and controlled.

When they arrived on scene of the Avella fire, Mr. Geresti said the area was consumed with flames. Firefighters thought they were witnessing a gas well blowout or fire, which occurs when pressure control systems fail, causing an uncontrollable release of natural gas. Pockets of oil and other hydrocarbons can also be released accidentally in gas well blowouts.

Statistics show blowouts are rare, occurring at an average rate of about 1 in every 1,000 gas wells, but first responders had no way to know that because they've never experienced anything like it.

"I've never actually seen it, but when you have a well fire or blowout, it's much different than that," Mr. Geresti said.

Gas well blowouts aren't handled by first responders, experts say, mostly because of the specialized equipment and training involved. An accurate portrayal of this, firefighters say, is the 1968 movie "Hellfighters," starring John Wayne as a oil well firefighter who was part of a special team that used metal shields and other devices to fight blowout fires and halt the flow of hydrocarbons.

The typical tools of the firefighting trade, foam and water, can sometimes make gas fires worse, creating a new ignition or environmental hazard. Rather, drilling companies call on a small network of special teams who travel to fires as needed.

The job of local first responders at such emergencies is to evacuate and secure the area and to protect nearby property and residents. Local first responders, however, are responsible for extinguishing other kinds of fire or gas site explosion.

Familiarizing first responders with a gas well site and the various stages of development, from site selection to drilling and processing, was the goal of the OSFC training course, part of a series of ongoing lectures and demonstrations aimed at Marcellus first responders.

"The program is designed to give first responders some background on Marcellus Shale gas sites in Pennsylvania," said adjunct instructor Guy Napolillo, who also serves as the 911 coordinator for Fayette County Emergency Management.

Mr. Napolillo and his colleague Jim Bittner, the county's emergency planner and trainer, have worked for years as instructors for the state Fire Academy, addressing issues such as hazardous materials in the 1990s and homeland security training since 2001. Today, the primary focus surrounds the burgeoning swarm of Marcellus Shale sites.

And though the southwestern corner of the state has for decades been peppered with shallow gas wells, Marcellus wells are drilled at much deeper depths with very high-pressure extraction methods. Those factors can lead to different and sometimes more serious injuries than what the average emergency medical crew might be prepared to tackle.

In both Washington and neighboring Westmoreland counties, drilling companies have also been coordinating with local first responders to improve training and encourage open communication.

While many of those drillers already have contingency plans filed with local governments, a bill requiring drilling companies to post emergency information at gas well sites and to file response plans was unanimously approved by the state Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee last week.

"We have not found any well company to be non-responsive to our requests," said Dan Stevens, Westmoreland County deputy emergency management coordinator. "Anything we've needed from them, they've given."

With 14 Marcellus Shale drilling companies operating more than 230 wells in Westmoreland, along with a company in Derry that has begun tapping gas from the Utica Shale -- another formation located several thousand feet below the Marcellus Shale -- that's a lot of coordination.

The county has organized a task force it calls the Westmoreland County Gas Exploration Working Group, with about 35 members, including local first responders, municipal officials and company representatives.

One of the goals of the group is to promote public awareness about gas drilling, along with safety initiatives and training programs for first responders.

For the gas companies, that's meant taking a more direct role to improve worker and public safety.

One of the companies drilling in Westmoreland, Tulsa, Okla.-based Williams Cos. Inc., helped fund the cost of color-coded safety cards that were distributed to local emergency responders and at local drill sites.

The laminated cards, developed by the Lycoming County Gas Exploration Task Force, include tools to help emergency responders quickly analyze incidents, with guidelines, types of well conditions and common terms.

"Safety is our number one priority," said Susan Oliver, Williams spokeswoman. "It's more like a commitment throughout Pennsylvania. All of our workers have the ability to shut down any well site if they feel it's unsafe."

Range Resources and several other large gas drilling companies have the same policy, encouraging contractors and other employees to step forward if anything seems amiss.

"Anyone can shut down an operation," Range spokesman Matt Pitzarella said. "If you're on a location and see cause for concern, we will shut down the well."

Mr. Pitzarella said Range officials have met with "every single fire marshal in the state" and that the company goes above and beyond requirements for filing emergency preparedness and spill prevention plans.

The company also has adopted a policy to cease operations when serious gas well incidents occur elsewhere in the state, even if they don't involve Range facilities. These total stand-downs are expensive, "because nobody works," Mr. Pitzarella said, but the pause serves as a "gut-check" for everyone.

Local counties have improved emergency response time by developing a 911 address system for gas well access roads, some of which can be a mile or more from a well site.

Mark Piantine, chief of the Derry Township Volunteer Fire Department Co. 1 in Bradenville, said persuading drilling companies to inform local emergency planners about their plans, such as flaring schedules, also greatly reduced false alarms.

"At one time, we had 30 calls in a 24-hour period" about a well flare, he said.

Seen as an ethereal glow that can be visible in the sky from as far as 10 miles away, gas flares resemble large candles and are used at the end of the well development process to burn off gas and vent emissions.

Gas companies also work with first responders by organizing on-site command systems, designating a "company man" to work as a liaison with emergency personnel around the clock, and by streamlining emergency procedures, including using signal horns to pinpoint incidents.

It's all done in an effort to make sure "Everyone Goes Home," as per the motto of the OSFC.

Mr. Piantine said he plans to continue learning as much as he can about gas well drilling, especially after hearing the chief of the Moundsville, W.Va., Volunteer Fire Department lament last year that his crew went into a massive gas well explosion and fire completely unaware of what was going on at the drilling site.

"That's not going to be me," he said.

Janice Crompton: or 412-851-1867.