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PA Well Fire Response Scrutinized, Lawmakers Praise DEP's Performance

The Pennsylvania State Police and Chevron Corp. confirmed late Wednesday that they had located the remains of a worker that had been missing since an explosion and fire broke out on Feb. 11 at a three-well pad owned and operated by Chevron Appalachia LLC in Greene County, PA.

Efforts have been ongoing for much of the week, after the fire burned out on Saturday, to clear charred equipment and debris so the Cameron International worker could be located. A northwestern Pennsylvania newspaper first identified that worker as Ian McKee, 27, of Morgantown, WV, on Tuesday (see Shale Daily, Feb. 18) after learning of a candlelight vigil his family organized for him.

Chevron confirmed that McKee was in fact the missing person and said state police had found and identified his remains after they could get to the pad late Wednesday.

"We value our employees and contractors as our greatest asset and work extremely hard every day to prevent incidents like this," Chevron said in a statement. "We are committed to fully understanding what happened and are determined to prevent this from happening again."

Chevron said the wells will likely be capped by the weekend and an investigation into the cause of the blast, which left another worker hospitalized, is expected to take weeks or even months.

Chevron called Houston-based Wild Well Control to the well site in Dunkard Township -- about 70 miles south of Pittsburgh -- on Feb. 11 (see Shale Daily, Feb. 12; Feb. 11). Along with state officials, Chevron representatives and local emergency management crews, Wild Well has been tending to the incident around the clock since it first happened.

During a budget hearing earlier this week in Harrisburg, the state capital, Chris Abruzzo, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), heard praise from a number of state senators about the performance of his staff and others involved in responding to the well fire.

"Obviously a loss of life on any type of industrial accident is something that no one likes to see," said State Sen.Tim Solobay (D-Greene County). "We're lucky we didn't see more, even though that was tragic in and of itself. The folks from your office, local responders, Chevron employees; everybody did what was supposed to be done in that type of situation. All those things were done kind of textbook."

Democratic State Sen. John Yudichak, who also serves as the minority chairman of the state's energy committee, told Abruzzo that the DEP's "response time was quick and it was certainly appreciated by those living in the area and residents of Greene County." Yudichak was somewhat critical of Wild Well, though, and wanted to know why it took the company so long to get to the site of the accident.

The specialists were dispatched by plane from Houston and did not arrive until late in the afternoon on Feb. 11. The fire was first reported at 6:45 a.m. that day, according to Chevron. Yudichak asked if specialized equipment and highly-trained personnel should be stationed across the state to deal with any similar incidents in the future.

Abruzzo said the company has an office in Canonsburg, PA and a staging ground in Clearfield, PA, both roughly an hour away from the well fire. Abruzzo said the state is so large and home to so many oil and gas wells that he didn't believe more locations for response specialists would help, adding that he was satisfied with Wild Well's response time.

"I know personally, for me, internally there are going to be things that I want to see us do better, I don't think any of that has to do with our folks on the ground or even Wild Well," Abruzzo told the senators. "There are more than 10,000 conventional and unconventional wells in Pennsylvania, and these types of incidents are rare. But we will do an after-action report and internal review to scrutinize what can be done better in the future."

Responding to a question about whether the DEP has enough reserve funds to handle sending so many personnel on overtime to an incident like the one in Greene County, Abruzzo said yes. He added, though, that his agency will be making every effort to recoup those costs from Chevron once the state's investigation has concluded.

Republican State Sen. Lisa Baker also hailed Abruzzo for the DEP's emergency response efforts, but she said she was interested in convening a work group or holding a follow-up hearing to review the DEP's accident findings. She also said she was interested in how Chevron could have done things differently at the site and thought Yudichak's idea about having more specialists headquartered in the state deserves a closer look from lawmakers.

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