By Samantha Malone, MPH, CPH – Communications Specialist, Center for Healthy Environments and Communities (CHEC), University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health (GSPH); Doctoral Student, GSPH
|Natural gas industry violations since 2007.
Avella, PA can be found by clicking on the image
and then zooming in on the patch of violations
in the center of the map.
Map created using FracTracker’s DataTool.
On February 23, 2011 a section of a natural gas drilling site in Avella, PA caught fire. Luckily only three workers were injured, but the issue still hits close to home – literally. Avella is my hometown. This quiet, farming area is located roughly 35 miles southwest of Pittsburgh in Washington County, PA. (See the map to the right.) It has a large school district geographically, with a tiny population. Known primarily for its rolling hills, farmland, and a historic landsite called Meadowcroft, Avella very rarely makes the headlines in Pittsburgh. That very fact is what peaked my concern when a TV news program mentioned that an incident had occurred on a Chesapeake Energy well site there.
The PA Department of Environmental Protection is currently investigating the fire. Initial reports indicate that volatile vapors that escaped while workers were flow-testing (part of which involves separating the flowback fluid from the natural gas), ignited and then caught nearby tanks on fire. Volatile vapors can include a number of constituents, such as propane and benzene, which is a known human carcinogen. While there is little evidence to suggest that water contamination occurred as a result of the accident (like the 2009 spill near Cross Creek lake), air quality was most definitely affected. The smell of chemicals burning during the fire was even reported by some nearby residents. Thankfully, based on witness and on-site reports, the cooperation between the various emergency responders meant that the fire only burned for about three hours.
On a side note, I find it interesting that Chesapeake immediately refuted reports that hydraulic fracturing was the cause of the fire. Hydraulic fracturing, a process that breaks apart the shale layer under the ground to release the gas, had apparently been completed on the site. However, the volatile vapors originated from condensate, a result of hydraulic fracturing. Semantics.