Jun 09, 2010
Four of the seven workers injured when a Fort Worth drilling company's rig exploded in West Virginia have been released from hospital care, while flames continued to spew from the well site in a "controlled blaze," a spokeswoman for the well's operator said Tuesday.
An explosion rocked Union Drilling's rig at 1:30 a.m. Monday after workers apparently hit a methane pocket in an abandoned coal mine at a depth of about 1,000 feet, said Kristi Gittens of Dallas-based Chief Oil and Gas, which contracted with Union to complete a second well on the lease. The blaze was expected to flare three or four days, said Gittens.
"Well control specialists are bringing in equipment needed to cap the well," she added. Chief Oil and Gas has partnered on the project with AB Resources of Brecksville, Ohio, which owns the lease. AB Resources has used Union Drilling to drill about 15 other wells in the Marcellus Shale play, including one near the rig that exploded.
"It looked like a big ball of fire," said Brad Varlas, a volunteer firefighter from nearby Moundsville, who got to the site within 15 minutes. "There wasn't much smoke, just glow from the flames. The derrick was still standing, but it collapsed later."
Seven of the rig's nine shift workers were hurt. Union Drilling employees drove some of the injured to a hospital, while others were transported by ambulance, Varlas said.
All were later treated at the West Penn Burn Center in Pittsburgh, where three remain in fair condition with no life-threatening injuries, said hospital spokeswoman Stephanie Wade. One was released Monday and three Tuesday, she added. Wade declined to provide further details, citing patient confidentiality.
Christopher D. Strong, chief executive of Union Drilling, issued a statement Monday from Fort Worth expressing concern for the injured workers and said the company was cooperating with investigators. The Fort Worth company had nothing further to say about the explosion, said an outside PR consultant serving as spokesman, who declined to be named.
Union Drilling also would not comment on a $54,000 fine levied last year by U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration for repeated violations at a drilling site in New Salem, Pa., he said.
It was not Union's first run-in with OSHA over workplace safety practices.
"This company previously was cited by OSHA for the same violations at a different worksite," OSHA area director Robert Szymanski said in an Aug. 14, 2009, statement to the media. "Complete disregard of OSHA regulations and unnecessarily exposing workers to risky hazards will not be tolerated."
Repeat violations within a three-year period included failing to provide a guard rail to prevent falls and a fully charged fire extinguisher while storing oxygen cylinders near combustible materials. There was no indication whether these lapses might have contributed to Monday's explosion.
In all, Union Drilling has been fined more than $350,000 over the last five years, reported West Virginia's Charleston Gazette, citing OSHA records. Negotiating down the fines, the company paid slightly more than $226,000, it said.
Some $43,000 in fines were paid for violations after the deaths of three Union Drilling employees in 2004 and 2005 at drilling operations in Colorado and Utah, the newspaper High Country News found in a review of OSHA records.
Coal operations at the Alexander Mine, where Monday's explosion occurred, ceased during the 1970s. Gittens said it was not unusual for drillers to encounter methane pockets in Appalachia. While AB owns the lease, drilling was being guided by the underground mine's former operator, Consul Energy, which is familiar with the area's strata, she said.
"They have the maps, [and] we have to work with them to determine where we can place our drilling rig, where we can drill the well," Gittens said.
Union Drilling had just completed and capped the well without incident when it skidded the rig over a second well site, she said. "They were only 1,000 feet down, and the rig workers were pulling out pipe to prepare for laying of surface casing when they encountered the gas." What might have sparked the blaze hasn't been determined, she added.
Meanwhile, West Virginia's Department of Environmental Protection is considering a moratorium on drilling and fracking by the companies involved in Monday's rig explosion, spokeswoman Kathy Cosco said.
"We're considering that whatever activity they have here; we may need to take a timeout," Cosco said. But she stressed, "It's not a done deal." Under discussion is whether a possible moratorium should include all operations involving the operator, the lease holder and the driller, or just some, she said. Cosco noted that much of the drilling activity is confined to two West Virginia counties, including Marshall County, where the explosion occurred. Gittens said no hydraulic fracturing activities were under way at the site because the affected well had not been completed and a nearby one had been capped.
The explosion comes at time when contract drillers like Union are dealing with lower rental rates that accompany low natural gas prices. Union Drilling reported losing $6 million during the first quarter of 2010, compared with a net loss of $271,000 for the year-ago period, as demand for drilling rigs further softened.
In a May 5 conference call to analysts, Strong said Union planned to transfer a rig to the Marcellus Shale region, but added: "Unfortunately, we are not seeing much of the seasonal recovery" in the Appalachian region, "where we have the bulk of our single-engine rigs."