Clearing land for shale gas pipeline in PA

A Push For Pipelines

By Bill Hughes, WV Community Liaison

For anyone who even casually follows Marcellus and Utica shale gas exploration and production, such as in the active gas fields of West Virginia or Southwestern PA or Ohio, we know there are many concerns surrounding the natural gas production process. These issues range from air pollution, water consumption and contamination, to waste disposal. We know that, after all well the pad drilling and construction traffic are done, we must also have pipelines to get the gas to compressor stations, processing plants, and to markets in the Eastern United States (and likely Europe and Asia in the near future). Gas companies in Wetzel County, WV, and in neighboring tri-state counties, are convinced that building pipelines – really big pipelines – will be the silver bullet to achieving some semblance of stability and profitability.

Problems With Proposed Pipelines

One of the new, very large diameter (42”) proposed gas pipelines getting attention in the press is the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which will originate in the village of Mobley in eastern Wetzel County, WV and extend Southeast, through national forests and over the Appalachian Mountains into the state of Virginia. Even if the residents of Wetzel County and other natural gas fields are guinea pigs for experiments with hydraulic fracturing, we know how to build pipelines, don’t we? The equipment, knowledge, and skill sets needed for pipeline construction is readily available and commonly understood compared to high pressure horizontal drilling with large volumes of slick water. So, what could go wrong?

I can answer that question first hand from my hayfield in Wetzel County. Almost two years ago, EQT wanted to survey my property for a similar proposed pipeline – this one 30” in diameter, called the Ohio Valley Connector (OVC). The application for this project has now been filed with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). The below map shows a section of the OVC as proposed almost two years ago. The red outlined area is my property. The yellow line shows one proposed pathway of the 30” pipeline that would cross our land. Multiple routes were being explored at first. Were this version approved, it would have gone right through my hayfield and under our stream.

A section of the OVC as proposed almost two years ago.

A section of the OVC as proposed almost two years ago. The red outlined area is my property. The yellow line shows one proposed pathway of the 30” pipeline that would cross our land.

Pipeline opponents express concern about habitat fragmentation, the crossing of pristine streams and rivers, erosion and sedimentation issues, spills, gas leaks, and possible explosions. These are all very valid concerns. But the potential for other logistical errors in the building process – from very simple to potentially serious ones – are also worth consideration. In this article I will use my recent personal experience as a detailed and documented example of how a professionally surveyed location on my property contained an error of almost one mile – over 4,000 feet – as part of a pipeline construction planning project. Yes, you read that right.

Part I: How Did We Get To This Point

Before we get to my story, I should review my first contact with EQT on this issue. In February of 2014, an EQT land agent asked me for permission to walk my property for preliminary evaluation of a route that would send their 30” high-pressure pipe through our land, from south to north.

It is important to keep in mind that almost every landowner in Wetzel County has been contacted by mail, phone or in person, by land agents promising cash with a verbal assurance that all will be well. The goal is to get a landowner’s signature on a loosely worded “right of way” (RoW) lease contract, with terms favorable to the gas company, and move on. Unfortunately, pipeline lease offers cannot be ignored. Not objecting or not questioning can sometime leave the landowner with fewer choices later. This is because many of the bigger interstate transmission lines are being proposed as FERC lines. When final approval is granted by FERC, these pipelines will have the legal power of eminent domain, where the property owner is forced to comply. Just filing a FERC application does not grant eminent domain in West Virginia, as it seems to in Virginia, but the potential for eminent domain gives land agents power over landowners.

I was not ready to give them surveying permission (to drive stakes or other permanent markers). Since a natural gas pipeline would affect all my neighbors, however, I agreed to allow a preliminary walk through my property and to hang surveyor ribbons in exchange for answering my questions about the project. For instance, one of my biggest concerns was the potential for significant habitat fragmentation, splitting up the forest and endangering wildlife habitat.

[av_font_icon icon=’ue836′ font=’entypo-fontello’ style=” caption=” link=” linktarget=” size=’40px’ position=’left’ color=”][/av_font_icon] There are many questions residents should consider when approached by land agent. A list of these questions can be found in the appendix below.

I never did get answers to most of my questions in the few e-mail exchanges and phone conversations with EQT. I never saw the surveyors either. They simply came and left their telltale colored ribbons. Later, at a public meeting an EQT representative said the closest they would run the pipe to any residence would be 37.5 feet. That number is correct. I asked twice. They said they had the right to run a pipeline that close to a residence but would do their best not to. The 37.5 feet is just one half of the permanent RoW of 75 feet, which was also only part of a 125 foot RoW requested for construction. A few months later, a very short e-mail said that the final pipeline route had changed and they would not be on my property. For a time we would enjoy some peace and quiet.

A Word On Surveyors

Most folks can relate to the work and responsibility of bookkeepers or Certified Public Accountants (CPAs). They measure and keep track of money. And their balance sheets and ledgers actually have to, well, BALANCE. Think of Surveyors as the CPAs of the land world. When they go up a big hill and down the other side, the keep track of every inch — they will not tolerate losing a few inches here and there. They truly are professionals, measuring and documenting everything with precision. Most of the surveyors I have spoken with are courteous and respectful. They are a credit to their profession. They are aware of the eminent domain threat and their surveying success depends on treating landowners with respect. They are good at what they do. However, as this article will show, their professional success and precision depends on whether or not they are given the correct route to survey.

Part II: Surveyor Stakes and Flags

Over the next year we enjoyed peace and quiet with no more surveyors’ intrusions. However, in my regular travels throughout the natural gas fields here, countless signs of surveyor activity were visible. Even with the temporary slowdown in drilling, the proposed pipeline installations kept these surveyors busy. Assorted types of stakes and ribbons and markings are impossible to miss along our roads. I usually notice many of the newer surveyor’s flags and the normal wooden stakes used to mark out future well pads, access roads, compressor stations, and more recently pipelines. Given that survey markings are never taken down when no longer needed, the old ones sometimes hide the new ones.

It can be difficult keeping track of all of them and hard at first to identify why they are there. Even if sometimes I am not sure what a stake and flag might indicate, when one shows up very unexpectedly in what is essentially my front yard, it is impossible to not see it. That is what happened in August of 2015. Despite being unable to get our hay cut due to excessive rain the previous month, the colored flags were highly visible. Below shows one of the stakes with surveyor’s tape, and the hay driven down where the surveyors had parked their trucks in my field alongside my access road.

A surveyor stake alongside my access road.

A surveyor stake alongside my access road.

To call it trespassing might not be legally defensible yet. The stakes were, after all, near a public roadway – but the pins and stakes and flags were on my property. Incidents like this, whether intentional or accidental, are what have given the natural gas companies a reputation as bad neighbors. There were surveyors’ stakes and flags at two different locations, my hay was driven down, and I had no idea what all this meant given that I had no communication from anyone at EQT in over 18 months. I consider myself fortunate that the surveyors did not stray into wooded areas where trees might have been cut. It’s been known to happen.

Below shows the two sets of wooden stakes, roughly 70-80 feet apart, with flags and capped steel rebar pins. Both stakes were near the road’s gravel lane, which is a public right of way. Nevertheless, the stakes were clearly on my property. The markings on one side of the stake identify the latitude, longitude, and the elevation above sea level of the point. The other side of the stake identified it as locating the OVC pipeline (seen here as “OVC 6C):

These identifying numbers are unique to this pin which is used to denote a specific type of location called a “control point.” Control points are usually located off to the side of the center-line of the pipeline:

A control point, located off to the side of the center-line of the pipeline.

A control point, located off to the side of the center-line of the pipeline.

It seemed that somehow, without informing me or asking permission to be on my land, EQT had changed their mind on the OVC route and were again planning to run a pipeline through my property. If this was intentional, both EQT and I had a problem. If this was some kind of mistake, then only EQT would have a problem. Either way I could not fathom how this happened. Trespassing, real or perceived, is always a sensitive topic. This is especially true since, when I had initially allowed the surveyor to be on my property, I had not given permission for surveying. Given concerns about eminent domain, I wanted answers quickly. I documented all this with detailed pictures in preparation for contacting EQT representatives in Pittsburgh, PA, with my complaints.

Part III: What Happened & How?

I think it is safe to say that, in light of my well-known activism in documenting all things Marcellus, I am not your average surface owner. I have over 10,000 photographs of Marcellus operations in Wetzel County and I document every aspect of it. Frequently this leads to contacting many state agencies and gas operators directly about problems. I knew which gas company was responsible and I also knew exactly who in Pittsburgh to contact. To their credit, the person I contacted at EQT, immediately responded and it took most of the day to track down what had happen. The short story was that it was all a simple mistake—a 4,300 foot long mistake—but still just a mistake. The long story follows.

The EQT representative assured me that someone would be out to remove their stakes, flags and the steel pins. I told them that they needed to be prompt and that I would not alter or move their property and locating points. The next day, when I got home, the stakes with flags were gone. Just a small bare patch of dirt remained near the white plastic fencepost I had placed to mark the location. However, since I am a cultivated skeptic—adhering to the old Russian proverb made famous by President Reagan, “Trust but Verify”—I grabbed a garden trowel, dug around a bit, and clink, clink. The steel pin had just been driven deeper to look good, just waiting for my tiller to locate someday. I profusely re-painted the pin, photographed it, and proceeded to send another somewhat harsh e-mail to EQT. The pin was removed the next day.

After all the stakes, ribbons, and steel pins were removed, EQT provided further insights into what had transpired. Multiple pipeline routes were being evaluated by EQT in the area. Gas companies always consider a wide range of constraints to pipeline construction such as road and stream crossings, available access roads, permission and cooperation of the many landowners, steepness of terrain, etc. At a certain point in their evaluation, a final route was chosen. But for unknown reasons the surveyor crew was given the old, now abanoned, route on which to establish their control points. The magnitiude of the error can be seen on the map below. The bright blue line is the original path of the OVC pipeline through my property and the red line shows where the FERC filed pipeline route will go. A new control point has now been established near the highway where the pipeline was meant to cross.

The FERC filed OVC pipeline route vs. the accidentally surveyed route.

The FERC filed OVC pipeline route vs. the accidentally surveyed route.

 

Part IV: Lessons To Be Learned

Given the likely impact of many proposed large-diameter, very long, pipelines being planned, it seems useful to examine how these errors can happen. What can we learn from my personal experience with the hundreds of miles of new pipelines constructed in Wetzel County over the past eight years? First, it is important to ask whether or not similar problems are likely to happen elsewhere, or if this was this just an isolated incident. Can we realistically expect better planning on the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline, which will run for over 300 miles? Can the residents and landowners living along these pipeline RoWs expect more responsible construction and management practices?

In general, many of the pipeline projects with which landowners, such as those in Wetzel County, are familiar with fall into the unregulated, gathering line category. They might be anywhere from six inches in diameter up to sixteen inches. As we review their track record, we have seen every imaginable problem, both during construction and after they were put into operation. We have had gas leaks and condensate spills, hillside mud slips, broken pipes, erosion and sedimentation both during construction and afterwards.

Now for some apparently contradictory assumptions—I am convinced that, for the most part, truck drivers, pipeliners, equipment operators, drilling and fracturing crews, well tenders and service personnel at well sites, all do the best job they can. If they are given the proper tools and materials, accurate directions with trained and experienced supervision, the support resources and the time to do a good job, then they will complete their tasks consistently and proudly. A majority of employees in these positions are dedicated, trained, competent, and hard working. Of course, there are no perfect contractors out there. These guys are human too. And on the midnight shift, we all get tired. In the context of this story, some pipeline contractors are better and more professional than others, some are more experienced, and some have done the larger pipelines. Therefore, despite best intentions, significant errors and accidents will still occur.

The Inherent Contradictions

It seems to me that the fragile link in natural gas production and pipeline projects is simply the weakness of any large organization’s inherent business model. Every organization needs to constantly focus on what I refer to as the “four C’s—Command and Control, then Coordination and Communication—if they are to be at all successful. It is a challenge to manage these on a daily basis even when everyone is in the same big building, working for the same company, speaking the same language. This might be in a university, or a large medical complex, or an industrial manufacturing plant.

But the four C’s are nearly impossible to manage due to the simple fact that the organizational structure of the natural gas industry depends completely on hundreds of sub-contractors. And those companies, in turn, depend on a sprawling and transient, expanding and collapsing, network of hundreds of other diverse and divergent independent contractors. For example, on any given well pad, during the drilling or fracturing process, there might be a few “company” men on site. Those few guys actually work for the gas company in whose name the operating permit is drawn. Everyone else is working for another company, on site temporarily until they are ready to move on, and their loyalty is elsewhere.

In the best of situations, it is next to impossible to get the right piece of information to the right person at just the right time. Effective coordination among company men and contractors is also next to impossible. I have seen this, and listened in, when the drilling company is using one CB radio channel and the nearby pipeline company is using some private business band radio to talk to “their people.” In that case, the pipeline contractors could not talk to the well pad—and it did not matter to them. In other cases, the pilot vehicle drivers will unilaterally decide to use another CB radio channel and not tell everyone. I have also watched while a massive drill rig relocation was significantly delayed simply because a nearby new gas processing plant was simultaneously running at least a hundred dump trucks with gravel on the same narrow roadway. Constant communication is a basic requirement for traffic coordination, but next to impossible to do properly and consistently when these practices are so prevalent.

These examples illustrate how companies are often unable to coordinate their operations. Now, if you can, just try to picture this abysmal lack of command and control, and minimal communication and coordination, in the context of building a 300-mile length of pipeline. The larger the pipeline diameter, and the greater the overall length of the pipeline, the more contractors will be needed. With more contractors and sub-contractors, the more coordination and communication are essential. A FERC permit cannot fix this, nor would having a dozen FERC permits. Unfortunately, I do not envision the four Cs improving anytime soon in the natural gas industry. It seems to be the nature of the beast. If, as I know from personal experience, a major gas company can arrange to locate a surveyed control point 4,300 feet from where it should have been, then good luck with a 300 mile pipeline. Even with well-intentioned, trained employees, massive problems are still sure to come.

The FERC approvals for these pipelines might not be a done deal, but I would not bet against them. So vigilance and preparation will still be of the essence. Citizen groups must be prepared to observe, monitor, and document these projects as they unfold. If massive pipelines like the MVP and OVC are ever built, they should become the most photographed, measured, scrutinized, and documented public works projects since the aqueducts first delivered water to ancient Rome. For the sake of protecting the people and environment of Wetzel County and similar communities, I hope this is the case.

By Bill Hughes, WV Community Liaison, FracTracker Alliance
Read more Field Diary articles.

Appendix: Questions to Ask When Approached by a Land Agent (Landsman)

These questions can be modified to suit your location. The abbreviation “Gas Corp.” is used below to reference a typical natural gas company or a pipeline subsidiary to a natural gas company.  These subsidiaries are frequently called Midstream Companies. Midstream companies build and manage the pipelines, gas processing, and some compressor stations on behalf of natural gas companies.

  1. Please provide a Plain English translation of your landowner initial contract.
  2. What will Gas Corp. be allowed to do, and not allowed to do, short term and long term?
  3. What will Gas Corp. be required to do, and not required to do?
  4. What is the absolute minimum distance this pipeline will be placed away from any dwelling anywhere along its entire length?
  5. What restrictions will there be on the my land after you put in the pipelines?
  6. Who will be overseeing and enforcing any environmental restrictions (erosion and sedimentation, slips, stream crossings, etc.)?
  7.  Who will be responsible for my access road upkeep?
  8. Who will be responsible for long term slips and settlements of surface?
  9. When would this construction begin?
  10. When would all work be completed?
  11. Who would be responsible for long term stability of my land?
  12. Will the pipeline contractor(s) be bound to any of our agreements?
  13. Who are the pipeline contractor(s)?
  14. What will be transported in the pipeline?
  15. Will there be more than one pipe buried?
  16. How wide is the temporary work RoW?
  17. How wide is the permanent RoW?
  18. How deep will the pipeline(s) be buried?
  19. What size pipe will it be; what wall  thickness?
  20. How often will the welds on the individual pipe segments be inspected?
  21. Will there be any above ground pipeline components left visible?
  22. Where will the pipe(s) originate and where will they be going to?
  23. What will the average operating pressure be?
  24. What will the absolute maximum pressure ever be?
  25. At this pressure and diameter, what is the PIR—Potential Impact Radius?
  26. Will all pipeline and excavating and laying equipment be brought in clean and totally free from any invasive species?
  27. How will the disturbed soil be reclaimed?
  28. Will all top soil be kept separate and replaced after pipeline is buried?
  29. Also, After all the above is settled, how much will I be paid per linear foot of pipeline?

Surveyor Symbols & Signs – A Guide

The following guide is a simplified description of a variety of markings that are used by land surveyors. Throughout an active shale gas field, the first signs of pending expansions are the simple markings of stakes, flags, and pins. Many months or even years before the chain saw fells the first tree or the first dozer blade cuts the dirt at a well pad location, the surveyors have “marked the target” on behalf of their corporate tactical command staff.

The three most commonly used markings are the simple stakes, flags and pins. These surveyor symbols are common to any construction project and guarantee that everything gets put in the right place. In an active gas field, these marking tools are used for all aspects of exploration and production:

  • access roads to well pads,
  • widening the traveled portion of the roadway,
  • well locations,
  • ponds and impoundment locations,
  • temporary water pipeline paths,
  • surface disturbance limits,
  • compressor stations,
  • gas processing sites, and
  • rights-of-way for roads and pipelines.

Quite frequently these simple markings are undecipherable by themselves, especially by non-professionals. One cannot just know what is happening, what is likely to occur, or how concerned one should be. Context and additional information are usually needed. Sometimes the simple colors and combinations of colored tapes might only make sense in conjunction with similar markings nearby. Sometimes public notices in the newspaper and regulatory permits must be used to decipher what is planned.

For an example, the proposed 30″ diameter EQT pipeline called the Ohio Valley Connector seems to be regularly marked using a combination of blue and white (see figure 10 below) surveyors tape to mark the actual pipeline location, then green and white (see figure 4 below) to mark all the proposed access roads along the routes that will be used to get pipe trucks and excavation equipment into the right of way. These access roads might be public roadways or cut across private leased property.

Common surveyor symbols & signs (click on images to zoom in)

Surveyor flags and tape: Sometime the flags or streamers are just attached to trees, fence posts, or put on a stake to make them visible above the weeds. There might be no markings on the stake, or only simple generic markings. This could just mean that this is the correct road and turn here. It could also signal a proposed or approximate location for some future work.

Simple surveyor’s flags or tape

Simple surveyor’s flags or tape

Surveyor flags and tapes: These are a selection of typical surveyor tapes, also called flags or ribbons. Many other specialty color combinations are available to the professional surveyor.

A selection of surveyor tapes

Stakes with simple markings: Flags with some type of identification (it might be names or numbers). This one was used for a proposed well pad access road location. There are no dimensions given on these.

Stake with simple markings

Stakes with simple flags and basic identification: The stakes shown here all indicate an access route to be used for equipment and trucks to get to a proposed pipeline right of way. The “H310″ is the EQT name for the 30” OVC pipeline.

Stakes indicating an access route

Control points: These three stakes are identifying a control point that is outside the limits of disturbance (LoD). These markings surround a pin to be used for reference.

Control point stakes

Controls points: This stake is also identifying a control point location. All control points will have some type of driven metal rod, usually with a plastic cap identifying the surveyor. Frequently there are three stakes with extra flags or tape. They are always set off to the side of the intended work area. They are not to be disturbed.

Control point stake and pin

Control points: Another set of three stakes marking a Control Point location. It is common to see triple stakes with elaborate, multiple flags. Even if only two stakes are present, there always will be a driven steel pin and identifying cap.

Control point stakes and pin

Control points: This shows a close-up of the identifying cap on a metal driven steel pin. Control point locations are not meant to be disturbed as they are for future and repeated reference. They might give the latitude and longitude on the stake plus the altitude above sea level.

Control point pin and cap

Control points: This is another, older control point location. This represents a typical arrangement where the stakes somewhat try to protect the metal pin from a bulldozer blade by warning its operator.

Control point pin protection

Limit of disturbance: The “L O D” here means the limits of disturbance. Beyond this point there should not be any trees cut or dirt moved. The stakes shown here indicates that this is the outside limit of where the contractor will be disturbing the original contour of the surface soil.

Limit of disturbance stakes

Limit of disturbance: The “L O D” means the limits of disturbance of the proposed pipeline right of way. Beyond this point there should not be any trees cut or dirt moved. This could also be used for the outside edge of well pads or access roads or pond locations.

Limit of disturbance ROW stakes

Pipelines: Stakes with flags and “center line” markings are usually for pipelines. Here you see the symbol for center line: a capital letter “C” imposed on the letter “L”.

Pipelines center line

Pipelines: Again you see the capital letter “C” super imposed on top of the letter “L” used frequently for pipe line center lines, but can also be used for proposed access roads.

Pipelines center line

Pipelines: As shown here, “C” and “L” center line flags can also be used for future well pad access roads.

Road access center line

Precise location markings: Stakes like this will usually have a steel pin also associated with it. This stake gives the latitude, longitude, and elevation of the site.

Precise location stake

Permanent property lines: You may also find markings, like this one inch steel rod with an alum cap, that denote permanent property lines and corners of property.

Permanent property rod

Permanent property lines: Another kind of permanent property line or corner marker is the “boundary survey monument.” This is likely an aluminum cap on top of a one inch diameter steel bar.

Boundary survey monument

Mess is near Stone Lantz pad, WV. - Photo by Bill Hughes

Stream Crossings – Oil and water don’t mix

By Bill Hughes, WV Community Liaison, FracTracker Alliance

West Virginia has generously allowed the shale gas industry to occupy parts of our private land (for profit), namely the Lewis Wetzel Wildlife Management Area (LWWMA). This area is known for 13,500 acres of slopes, trails and forests, providing its inhabitants with great opportunities to hunt, fish, hike and camp.

The state of West Virginia does not own the mineral rights for the LWWMA, and the citizens of West Virginia can only manage so much; therefore, it is the responsibility of the Department of Natural Resources, on behalf of all WV citizens, to care for and manage public lands like LWWMA. With much surprise, the DNR has not only allowed oil and gas occupation of LWWMA, but has not been permitted to impose any regulation, supervision, or any other type of state-initiated enforcements. This approach is primarily due to the lack — or absence of inspectors in the Office of Oil and Gas — division of the Department of Environmental Protection. Often the inspectors that are available are simply playing catch up since the industry and market made some unexpected changes, according to DEP spokeswoman, Kathy Cosco.

Where is the reclamation?

I have been of the impression that once drilling and fracturing is done and the wells are put into production, that some form of reclamation must occur. To my dismay, no part of the drilling industry has taken responsibility for stream crossings, and clearly has no intention in doing so. Everybody has ostensibly packed their bags and gone home, leaving a mess of abandoned stream crossings behind. It is very apparent that no improvements will be done voluntarily by the companies that have created all the well pads in the area. Now the question remains: are we stuck with the stream crossings the way they are now? Or can the state order that these abandoned, inadequate stream crossings be removed?

How Not to Do Stream Crossings

The four photos below depict the deplorable, unacceptable, and disgraceful conditions of the stream crossings left behind by the drilling industry. The DNR and the State of WV have known about these conditions for years, yet have not required that any improvements to be made. Click on each poor stream crossing image to enlarge it:

Near Dry Ridge, API 47-103-02433. All of the water is flowing around the pipes.

Near Dry Ridge, WV. API 47-103-02433

Near Sees Run at Buffalo Run, WV

Near Sees Run at Buffalo Run, WV

Stone Energy well pad on Buffalo Run near Lantz Farm and LWWMA

Stone Energy well pad on Buffalo Run near Lantz Farm & LWWMA

Mess is near Stone Lantz pad, WV

Stream crossing mess near Stone Lantz pad, WV

These examples might be why some folks are more than just a little incredulous when the DNR said that it was going to lease public lands under the river for drillers to take advantage of, promising and assuring that they protect the Ohio River from any drilling-related problems. If the DNR cannot handle the size of the stream water flow, or find a better way to enforce responsible behavior from the drillers, then the Ohio River and the citizens of West Virginia are surely in trouble.

In Need of Higher Standards

The picture below is a depiction of a good stream crossing, installed by someone other than a drilling company. Is there any hope that we will ever expect drillers to do this quality of reclamation to the places we cherish and call home? From an enforcement standpoint, it is clear that these actions will not be voluntary. West Virginia’s DEP has several divisions that focus on land reclamation, environmental remediation and land restoration; however, all of these encourage voluntary action, something we don’t expect to see from drilling companies in the near future.

Buffalo Run crossing going to the William WGGS compressor station. This is what all the permanent stream crossings should look like.

Buffalo Run crossing going to the William WGGS compressor station. This is what all the permanent stream crossings should look like.

Where have all the guardrails gone?

Guardrails vs. Trucks

Wetzel County in northwestern West Virginia is remarkable for its steep, knobby hills and long narrow winding valleys – providing residents and visitor alike with beautiful views. Along with these scenic views, however, comes difficult roadways and dangerous traveling.

Two two-lane roads traverse the county from the west, along the Ohio River, to the east. There are very few connecting roads going north-south between these two main highways, and only one of them is semi-paved. This road is called Barker Run Road — treacherous, steep and winding. There is at least a 400-foot change in elevation in about ½ mile at one point, with multiple switchbacks.

Switchbacks have a reputation for swallowing up the long trailer component of the tractor-trailer combos, which now comprise a larger part of the traffic on Barker Run Road. Many of these trucks are heading to the HG Energy drilling sites on the ridges at the top. HG Energy has a significant footprint up there. On the east ridge there are four well pads in place and two additional pads being completed to the east, and two large ones on the ridge to the west of Barker Run Road. All that traffic must use Barker Run Road. Until the recent expansion of natural gas exploration in the area, however, I had never seen a tractor and trailer come up either side of the very steep road.

The first casualty caused by the large, long trailer trucks needed to service these well pads is always the full-time sentinels of our traffic safety – our faithful guard rails that are designed to take a beating before we and our vehicle descend over the hillside sideways or rolling over. A good example of a damaged but still useful guardrail is shown below from February on 2012 – wrinkled but useful. The very sharp turn in the roadway is also obvious here.

Figure 1. Switchback curve on Barker Run Road has seen its share of damage from the increase in truck traffic.

Figure 1. Switchback curve on Barker Run Road has seen its share of damage from the increase in truck traffic.

After leaving Route 7 heading south on Barker Run Road, one encounters a particularly sharp and steep switchback curve as shown in Figure 1. It is this kind of turn that is so sharp that it allows the driver of an overlong truck to be able to look back and check the lug nuts on the rear wheels.

On a few occasions, I have been able to actually witness the attempt of our full-time guards as they try to keep a truck somewhat close to the roadway. The below photo shows that the guardrail was barely able to keep the trailer from going completely over the hillside. The truck was stuck, causing the road to be closed for hours till help could arrive (Figure 2, below).

When that incident was over, the photo below from a few weeks later, on March 16, 2013, shows the final damaged rail (Figure 3). The guardrail and posts were replaced and were largely intact when the rail was pushed over again in May of 2013 by another oversized truck trying to get up the hill and around the turn (Figure 4). Ongoing impacts with the guardrail eventually rendered it useless. Figure 5 below is a photo taken in August of 2013.

Infrastructure Damage & Costs

When the Marcellus shale gas drilling began here in Wetzel County eight years ago, it quickly became apparent that the rapidly expanding Chesapeake Energy drilling footprint in north central Wetzel County was leaving scars in the neighborhood, particularly on the roadways. The most visible damages were the road signs, guardrails, and pavement. These effects resulted in a three-layer, road bonding program implemented by the West Virginia Department of Highways. The stipulation requires that any of the large natural gas drillers or operators must post a $1-million bond to cover them statewide, or a single highway district bond for $250,000. This bonding only applies to secondary roads. The third option is to post a bond for fixed, limited miles along specific roads. Some of the pipeline contractors who might be working in a smaller area will use the latter option. Since the DOH generally knows which companies are using the roads, the department usually knows who to approach to pay for damage. In a few cases the companies have reported the damage to the Highway department, and at other times the truckers’ insurance companies report an accident or insurance claim. .

During a recent conversation with a WV-DOH representative, I was told that he quite frequently gets good cooperation from the gas industry companies in paying for damages. He said this is true even when a number of different companies and dozens of their subcontractors are using the same road.

Usually the guardrails just need to be fixed or replaced and new posts installed. Sometimes it is not critical that it be done immediately. However, at times the repairs should be done now. A good example of when repairs are needed soon is shown below in Figure 7, right. This remnant is the shredded, mangled, twisted remains of the stubborn effort of the steel to stop a truck.

The rail has now been totally sliced open, making it an extraordinary danger to the traveling public. As we enter the winter season with a bit of snow and ice on this steep road above this section, any of my neighbors could slide into this. I am optimistic that it will be replaced soon and have had several conversations with the WV-DOH to speed up the process.

By Bill Hughes, WV Community Liaison, FracTracker Alliance
Read more Field Diary articles.

Gas Trucks Blocking Roads

Companies Lack Truck Traffic Coordination

Recently, I was observing how Statoil was managing their gas well traffic, how well it was moving, and whether local residential traffic was being significantly delayed.

Figure 1. Road map referred to throughout text

Figure 1. Road map referred to throughout text

In Wetzel County, WV, gas trucks travel 4.5 miles from a Statoil pipe yard (Fig 1. Location A) in Uniontown to the Statoil Kuhn well pad (E). This trip can take at least 15 minutes for each truck. Rockford is also doing pipeline work along this route (B and D).

The roadway Statoil is using, even though it is small gravel lane, is a public route. Routine well pad traffic was moving between the pad and pipe yard. When I attempted to travel out to the well pad, I noticed some issues around the pipeline crossing. A large truck was blocking the road and all traffic was stopped. At 3:59 pm, a large dump truck hauling drill cuttings left the well pad coming towards the pipeline. Statoil personnel radioed the flagger at the pipe yard to stop traffic there.

The dump truck was stopped at the pipeline crossing, point D at 4:09 pm, where the road was blocked. It was not until 4:34 pm that traffic was finally able to proceed. This section of road was closed for 35 minutes, as was the lower road at the pipe yard.

For the past few days, Statoil has been stopping all traffic as soon as any truck leaves the well pad, whether the pipeliners have the road blocked or not.

Associated Issues

There are three serious factors that significantly hamper traffic flow along this route:

Statoil's Kugh Well Pad

Statoil’s Kugh Well Pad

  1. Statoil has flagger-radio personnel stationed at the pipe yard and at the pad, but not at the top of the hill (C) about a mile from the pipe yard. As a result, there was no way to allow any local traffic to come up the hill even when they intend to continue heading west or southeast. With a flagger-radio at the top of the hill, local traffic could be up the hill and long gone before any large trucks got to there. (Note: After a few weeks a traffic person was then stationed at the top of the hill).
  2. Not all Statoil subcontractors trucks are equipped with CB radios, so it is impossible to track their progress or location on this road.
  3. Rockford and Statoil do not use any common radio band. They do not appear to communicate with each other even though they are working along this same truck route.

This traffic block incident luckily did not include emergency vehicle traffic. If there had been any accident on or near the well pad or the pipeline right of way, no one would have been able to get through. It would seem that it is in the best interest of the companies and their employees to make sure the road is clear, all the time. When I discussed this with the tool pusher* on the well pad, he agreed. He was also concerned that there was no helicopter landing area nearby in the event of a serious accident. He runs a safe well drilling operation but wanted to be certain that an emergency vehicle could get through.

* A tool pusher is the boss man who runs the whole drilling operation as a subcontractor to the gas operator.


By Bill Hughes, WV Community Liaison, FracTracker Alliance
Read more Field Diary articles.

 

Inadequate vapor recovery system lead to residue forming on tank from escaping fumes. Jay-Bee was finally fined in Oct 2014 for these emissions.

Finally Fined – Oct. 5, 2014

Sometimes we all need to be more patient. Enforcement of environmental regulations against a corporation rarely happens, and environmental enforcement against an oil and gas corporation is truly an amazing rarity. These do not come our way with any degree of frequency. However, here is one where an operator was finally fined – and in West Virginia.

The enforcement and fine in Tyler County, WV is especially amazing since it follows just weeks after the Trans Energy guilty pleas and fines totaling $600,000 for three violations of the Clean Water Act in Marshall County, WV.

On October 5, 2014, Jay-Bee Oil and Gas Company was fined $240,000
for violations at its Lisby Pad in Tyler County, WV.

Now, finally, after about a year and a half of deplorable operating conditions on one of the worse (readily visible) well pads that we have seen in years, some enforcement action has finally happened.

Findings of Fact

Jay-Bee Oil & Gas, Inc. owns and operates natural gas well sites known as Lisby / TI-03, RPT8, RPT5, Coffman, W701, TI213, McIntyre, and Hurley, which are located in West Virginia. Here is the timeline for inspections and complaints related to this site:

  • March 28, 2014 – Personnel from the Division of Air Quality (DAQ) conducted an inspection at the Lisby / TI-03 Well Pad in response to a citizen odor complaint.
  • April 1, 2014 – Personnel from the DAQ conducted a follow-up inspection at the Lisby 1 T1-03 Well Pad. Visible emissions were observed from the permanent production storage tanks.
  • April 17, 2014 – Personnel from the DAQ conducted a follow-up inspection at the Lisby 1 TI-03 well pad in response to additional citizen odor complaints
  • July 18, 2014 – In response to a citizen complaint, personnel from the DAQ conducted an inspection at the Lisby 1 T1-03 Well Pad. Objectionable odors and visible emissions were observed from the thief hatch of one of the permanent production storage tanks. A visible liquid leak was also observed on a pipe located at the tank nearest to the vapor recovery unit.
  • September 30, 2014 – Jay-Bee Oil and Gas Company agrees to pay a total civil administrative penalty of two hundred forty thousand dollars ($240,000) to resolve the violations described in this Order (PDF).

Of Note

This enforcement action was not done by the WVDEP Office of Oil & Gas, who seem to only politely try to encourage the drillers to somewhat improve their behavior. The WVDEP Department of Air Quality issued this Notice of Violation and enforcement.

Most of this air quality enforcement process started because of the continued, asphyxiating, toxic gas fumes that poured off the Jay-Bee Lisby pad for months. The residents were forced to move away and have not returned due to lack of confidence that it is safe to live in this area yet. These residents join the growing ranks of others, who are now referred to as Marcellus refugees.

Inadequate vapor recovery system lead to residue forming on tank from escaping fumes

Inadequate vapor recovery system lead to residue forming on tank from escaping fumes

Additional Resources

Below are links to some of the newspaper articles on the same mismanaged well pad:


By Bill Hughes, WV Community Liaison, FracTracker Alliance
Read more Field Diary articles here.

Jay Bee Lisby Pad Inspection – Sept. 11, 2014

I regularly visit the Jay Bee Lisby pad on Big Run in Tyler County, WV. Given its significant and continuing problems over the past year, and also due to the total absence of any environmental enforcement, it is important to give all those JB well pads extra attention. In fact, I happened upon a few new issues during my recent visits and site inspections on Sept. 11, 2014 and again on Oct. 1st.

There seems to be an effort by Jay-Bee to literally bury their evidence in a ditch along their poorly constructed well pad. New dirt has recently been put into the low area along the jersey barriers (photo above). It appears that they are trying now to build some type of well pad, whereas most drillers usually build a proper well pad before they drill the wells.

An additional issue is the orange fluid pouring out of the well pad (photos below). While I have conducted my own sampling of this contaminant, regulatory sampling should be conducted soon to find out the nature of this fluid and its source from the Jay Bee Lisby pad.

Orange Liquid Seeping from Lisby Pad

Orange Liquid Close Up

Given the many spills at this pad, this issue is not surprising. However, we still need to find out what this is, as it will not be going away on its own. JB should not be allowed to bury its evidence before they are required to test and reclaim the whole area.

Please keep in mind that the law might allow a driller to force a well pad on a land owner to recover the gas, and to also locate it next to a stream, but it does not give them the right to contaminate and pollute private property – which has been done here numerous times.

MonitorResults

Readings from conductivity meter

When I sampled the fluid from the puddle below the orange stream and tested its conductivity, the meter read ~2.34 millisiemens – or 2340 microsiemens (photo right).

The orange fluid continues to flow under the fence and beyond their limits of disturbance. However, given the wide area covered in sludge after the January explosion, it is hard to say where their limits of disturbance actually stop.


By Bill Hughes, WV Community Liaison, FracTracker Alliance
Read more Field Diary articles here.

In-depth Review of the Statoil Well Pad Fire

Commentary on Shale Gas Operations: First in a Series of Articles
By Bill Hughes, Community Liaison, FracTracker Alliance
Statoil Well Pad Fire: June 28-29, 2014

The early riser residents along Long Ridge Road in Monroe County are among the first in Ohio to see the sun coming up over the West Virginia hills.  It rose about 6:00 am on the morning of June 28th.  Everyone assumed that this would be a normal Saturday morning.  Well, at least as normal as it had been for the better part of two years since the site preparation and drilling started.

For those residents on Long Ridge who were not early risers, the blaring sirens, the smell of acrid smoke, and the presence of fire trucks and other emergency vehicles shortly after 9:00 am must surely have made them wonder if they were in the midst of a nightmare. A quick glance outside toward the Statoil Eisenbarth well pad and they would have seen this view:

Statoil 1

Figure 1. View from the southeast, as the fire spread on Sat. June 28th

The image in Fig. 1 would be enough to make most folks feel somewhat panicky and consider evacuating the neighborhood. That is exactly what soon happened – definitely not the start of a normal Saturday morning.

Adjusting to the New Normal

The traffic in the area had been a problem ever since site preparation started on the nearby well pad. The State expected the drillers to keep up the road. Crews also provided lead escort vehicles to help the many big trucks negotiate the narrow road way and to clear the residential traffic. Access to the well site required trucks to climb a two-mile hill up to the ridge top.

Statoil 2

Fig. 2. Neighbors’ views of the fire

Until June 28th, most folks had become accustomed to the extra noise, diesel fumes, and congestion and delays that always come with any shale gas well exploration and development in the Marcellus shale gas active area. Most of the neighbors had gotten used to the new normal and reluctantly tolerated it. Even that was about to change, dramatically.  As the sun got higher in the eastern sky over WV, around 9:00 AM, suddenly the sky started to turn dark. Very dark. Sirens wailed. Red trucks started a frenzied rush down Long Ridge from all directions. There was a fire on the well pad. Soon it became a very large, all consuming fire.  Smoke, fire, bitter fumes, and no one seemed to know yet exactly what had happened, and what was likely to happen soon.

This gas well location, called the Eisenbarth pad, recently changed operators. In January 2013, the well pad property and its existing well and equipment were bought out by Statoil, a company based in Norway.  Statoil had since drilled seven more wells, and even more were planned.  The original single well was in production.  Now in late spring and early summer of 2014 the new wells were to be “fracked.”  That means they were ready to be hydraulically fractured, a procedure that follows the completion of the drilling process.

Statoil hired as their fracturing sub-contractor Halliburton. All of the fracturing pump trucks, sand kings, Sand Castles, and control equipment were owned and operated by Halliburton.  The fracturing process had been ongoing for some weeks when the fire started. The eastern Ohio neighbors now watched ~$25 million worth of equipment go up in smoke and flames (Fig. 2). The billowing smoke was visible for over 10 miles.

Industrial accidents are not rare in the Ohio Valley

Many of the residents nearby had worked in the coal mining industry, aluminum plants, chemical plants, or the coal fired power plant that were up and down the Ohio River. Many had since retired and had their own industrial accident stories to tell. These were frequently private stories, however, which mostly just their co-workers knew about. In an industrial plant, the common four walls and a roof kept the dangerous processes confined and enabled a trained response to the accidents. The traditional, industrial workplace had well-proven, customized workplace safety standards.  Professional maintenance personnel were always nearby.  In stark contrast, unconventional gas well pads located in our rural communities are very different. They are put in our hayfields, near our homes, in our pastures and just down the road. You cannot hide a community accident like this.

Sept 2014 Update: Video of the fire, Copyright Ed Wade, Jr.

Print Media Coverage of the Fire

Within days, many newspapers were covering the well pad fire story. The two nearby weekly newspapers, one in Monroe County, Ohio and the other in Wetzel County, West Virginia both had detailed, long articles the following week.

Statoil 3

Fig. 3. View from the east as the fire started

The Monroe County Beacon on July 2, 2014 said that the fire spread quickly from the small original fire which was totally surrounded within the tangled complex of equipment and high pressure piping.  Early Saturday morning, the first responder would likely have seen a rather small somewhat localized fire as shown in Fig. 2. The photo to the right (Fig. 3) is the view from the east, where the access road is on Long Ridge road. This point is the only access into the Statoil well pad. The view below, showing some still intact tanker trucks in the foreground, is looking west toward the well location. Pay attention to the couple of trucks still visible.

The Monroe County emergency director said it was his understanding that the fire began with a ruptured hydraulic hose. The fluid then ignited on a hot surface. He said, “…by 9:10 AM the fire had spread to other pumps on the location and was spreading rapidly over the well pad.”   Emergency responders needed water now, lots of it. There is only one narrow public road to the site at the top of a very long, steep hill and only one narrow entrance to the densely congested equipment on the pad.  Many Volunteer Fire Departments from both Ohio and West Virginia responded.  A series of tanker trucks began to haul as much water to the site as possible.  The combined efforts of all the fire departments were at best able to control or contain but not extinguish the powerful, intensely hot and growing blaze.  The Volunteer firemen did all they could. The EMS director and Statoil were very grateful for the service of the Volunteer Fire Departments. There was a major loss of most equipment, but none of the 45-50 workers on site were injured.

Statoil 4

Fig. 4. Well pad entrance

The article from the Wetzel Chronicle also praised the coordinated effort of all the many fire departments. At first they attempted to fight the fire, and then prudently focused on just trying to limit the damage and hoping it did not spread to the well heads and off the well pad itself. The New Martinsville fire chief also said that,  “… the abundance of chemicals and explosives on the site, made attempts to halt the fire challenging, if not nearly impossible… Numerous plans to attack the fire were thwarted each time by the fires and numerous explosions…”  The intense heat ignited anything nearby that was at all combustible. There was not much choice but to let the fire burn out.

Eventually the view at the well pad entrance as seen from the east (Fig. 3) would soon look like the overhead view (Fig. 5). This aerial imagery shows what little remained after the fire was out – just some aluminum scrap melted into the decking is left of the original, white Hydrochloric Acid tanker truck. Everything near it is has almost vaporized.

Statoil 5

Figure 5. Post-fire equipment identification

Efforts to Limit the Fire

Statoil 6

Fig. 6. Protected white trailer

An excellent example of VFD’s successfully limiting the spread of the fire and controlling the extreme heat can be seen in the photo to the right (Fig. 6). This white storage trailer sure seems to be a most favored, protected, special and valuable container. It was.

It was filled with some particularly dangerous inventory. The first EPA report explains it thus:

A water curtain was maintained, using pump lines on site, to prevent the fire from spreading to a trailer containing 1,100 pounds of SP Breaker (an oxidizer), 200 pounds of soda ash and compressed gas cylinders of oxygen (3-2000 lb.), acetylene (2-2000 lb.), propane (6-20 lb.), among miscellaneous aerosol cans.

Statoil 7

Fig. 7. Post-fire pad layout

Yes, this trailer got special treatment, as it should. It contained some hazardous material.  It was also at the far southwest corner of the well pad with minimal combustibles near it.  That was also the closest corner to the nearby holding pond, which early on might have held fresh water. Now the holding pond is surely very contaminated from flowback and runoff.

The trailer location can be seen in the picture to the right in the red box (Fig. 7), which also shows the complete well pad and surrounding area. However, in comparison to the one white storage trailer, the remainder of the well pad did not fare so well. It was all toast, and very burned toast at that.

Columbus Dispatch and the Fish Kill

Besides the two local newspapers, and Wheeling Jesuit researchers, the Columbus Dispatch also covered the story and provided more details on the 3- to 5-mile long fish kill in the stream below the well pad. Additional facts were added by the two EPA reports:

Those reports list in some detail many of the chemicals, explosives, and radiological components on the well pad.  Reader note: Get out your chemical dictionary, or fire up your Google search. A few excerpts from the first EPA report are provided below.

…Materials present on the Pad included but was not limited to: diesel fuel, hydraulic oil, motor oil, hydrochloric acid, cesium-137 sources, hydrotreated light petroleum distillates, terpenes, terpenoids, isoproponal, ethylene glycol, paraffinic solvents, sodium persulfate, tributyl tetradecyl phosphonium chloride and proprietary components… The fire and explosion that occurred on the Eisenbarth Well Pad involved more than 25,000 gallons of various products that were staged and/or in use on the site… uncontained run-off was exiting the site and entering an unnamed tributary of Opossum Creek to the south and west and flowback water from the Eisenbarth Well #7 was spilling onto the well pad.

Reader Warning:  If you found the above list overly alarming, you might choose to skip the next equally disturbing list. Especially since you now know that this all eventually flowed into our Ohio River.

The EPA report continues with more specific chemical products involved in the fire:

Initial reports identified the following products were involved and lost in the fire: ~250 gallons of hydrochloric acid (28%), ~7,040 gallons of GasPerm 1000 (terpenes, terpenoids, isopropanol, citrus extract, proprietary components), ~330 gallons of LCA-1 (paraffinic solvents), ~ 1900 gallons of LGC-36 UC (hydrotreated light petroleum distillate, guar gum), ~1000 gallons of BC-140 (monoethanolamine borate, ethylene glycol), ~3300 gallons of BE-9 (tributyl tetradecyl phosphonium chloride), ~30,000 gallons of WG-36 (polysaccharide gel), ~1,000 gallons of FR-66 (hydrotreated light petroleum distillate), ~9000 gallons of diesel fuel, ~300 gallons of motor and hydraulic oil.

Even more details of the incident and the on-site chemicals are given in the required Statoil 30-day report (PDF).

The EPA reports detail the “sheet” flow of unrestricted contaminated liquids off of the well pad during and after the fire. They refer to the west and south sides. The below Google Earth-based map (Fig. 8) shows the approximate flow from the well pad. The two unnamed tributaries join to form Opossum Creek, which then flows into the Ohio River four miles away.

Statoil 8

Figure 8. Map showing path of unrestricted flow off of the Statoil well pad due to a lack of berm

After describing some of the known chemicals on the well pad, the EPA report discusses the construction of a new berm, and where the liquid components flowed. Below is a selection of many excerpts strung together, from many days, taken directly from the EPA reports:

…unknown quantities of products on the well pad left the Site and entered an unnamed tributary of Opossum Creek that ultimately discharges to the Ohio River. Runoff left the pad at various locations via sheet flow….Initial inspections in the early hours of June 29, 2014 of Opossum Creek approximately 3.5 miles downstream of the site identified dead fish in the creek…. Equipment was mobilized to begin constructing an earthen berm to contain runoff and to flood the pad to extinguish remaining fires…. Once fires were extinguished, construction of a berm near the pad was begun to contain spilled liquids and future runoff from the well pad… Statoil continued construction of the containment berm currently 80% complete. (6-30-14)… Assessment of chemicals remaining on the well pad was completed. The earthen berm around the pad was completed,  (7-2-14)… ODNR Division of Wildlife completed their in stream assessment of the fish kill and reported an estimated 70,000 dead fish from an approximately 5 mile stretch extending from the unnamed tributary just west of the Eisenbarth Well Pad to Opossum Creek just before its confluence with the Ohio River… Fish collection was completed. In total, 11,116 dead fish were collected (20 different species), 3,519 crustaceans, 7 frogs and 20 salamanders.

The overall conclusion is clear. Large quantities of various chemicals, mixed with very large amounts of already contaminated water, when flooding a well pad that had no berms around it, resulted in a significant fish kill over several miles. After the fire Statoil then constructed a berm around the well pad. If there had been a pre-existing berm – just 12 inches high and level – around the well pad, it could have held over 600,000 gallons of runoff. That amount is twice the estimated quantity of water used to fight the fire.  (Note: my old 35 HP farm tractor and a single bottom plow can provide a 12-inch high mound of dirt in one pass.)

The significance for safe, potable drinking water, is that all the chemicals and petroleum products on the well pad either burned and went up in a toxic plume of black smoke, or were released in liquid form down into the well pad or flowed off of it. Since the original liner on the well pad also completely burned and there was no overall berm on the well pad, there was nothing to restrict the flow of polluted liquid. Therefore, it all seeped into the ground and/or ran off of the pad with the 300,000 gallons of water that was estimated to have been sprayed onto the burning equipment fire.

Follow Up Questions

Since this fire happened over 6 weeks ago, there have been many opportunities for nearby citizens and neighbors to meet and discuss their many concerns.  Many of the question have revolved around the overall lack of information about the process of shale gas fracturing, the equipment used, and the degree of risk that it all may present to our communities. These communities include the nearby residents, the travelling public, and all of the first responders. Unless someone has a well pad on or near their property and they are able to actively follow the process, it is usually difficult to find out the details of a specific gas operation. (We have even known of operators that have told landowners to get off of their own property both during drilling and fracturing operations and afterwards.)

Questions that follow incidents like this one typically look like this:

  1. Why was there no perimeter berm?
  2. Why could the fire not be put out quickly and easily? What all was lost? What did this site look like in the beginning?
  3. Why was there so much equipment onsite? Is this typical? What is it all called and how is it used?

1. Lack of Berm

The first and somewhat unanswered question concerns the absence of a simple containment berm around the completed well pad. Statoil must not have thought one would be very helpful, and/or the State of Ohio must not require them.

However, I had raised concern over this very topic more than a year ago from WV. In response, I received a letter in September 2013 from Statoil North America to the WVDEP. It provides some insight into Statoil thinking. Based on my interpretation of that letter, the official position of Statoil last year was that berms around the well pad do not help and are not needed. Given the recent fire, perhaps that position has changed. All we know for sure now is that at least their Eisenbarth well pad now does have a complete perimeter berm. We now have empirical proof, if any was ever needed, that in the presence of spills the absence of berms makes for greater and more expensive downstream problems.

2. An Obstinate Fire

Setting aside the berm problem, I will attempt to address the next set of questions: Why could the fire not be put out quickly and easily? What all was lost ? What did this site look like in the beginning?

The simplest way to start on such questions is to look at other hydraulic fracturing sites to identify what is there and why, and then to compare those with the charred remains on the Statoil Eisenbarth well pad in Monroe County.  Since Statoil’s contractor was Halliburton, it would help to look at their equipment when in process elsewhere.  In Figure 9 below is a clean, bright red and grey Halliburton fracking fleet.

Statoil 9

Figure 9. Example of Halliburton fracking fleet

It needs to be stated up front that I consider Halliburton to be among one of the more reputable, experienced, and dependable fracturing companies. We have seen way worse here in Wetzel County over the past seven years. Halliburton has good equipment and well-trained, safety-conscious employees. It seems to be a well-run operation. If so, then how did this massive fire happen? It simply seems that it is the nature of the beast; there are many inherent dangers to such operations. Plus there is an enormous amount of equipment on site, close coupled and stuffed into a small amount of real estate. Not to mention, the whole setup is temporary – with a lot of fuel and ignition sources. Therefore, many of the available engineered-in safeguards that would normally be installed in an industrial, fixed, permanent location, just cannot be incorporated on my neighbor’s hay field, creek bottom, or farmland.

The whole process has many risks, and many of them cannot be eliminated, just minimized. I do not think that anyone could have predicted a weak hydraulic hose. Some accidents are just that — unpreventable accidents. This is why we need to be very careful with how close we allow these sites in residential areas.

3. Serious Equipment

In Figure 10 below is a wide-angle composite photo of a Halliburton fracturing project in process. Given the shallow angle viewpoint, not all equipment is visible or numbered. The photo is still very representative of frac sites in general and equivalent to what can be seen in the scorched remains on the Statoil Eisenbarth site. The major qualification on the fracturing pumps above and the ones below, is that they are a newer generation of Halliburton dual fuel pumps. They can run on natural gas.

Statoil 10

Figure 10. Halliburton fracturing project in process

Just about everything seen in the above bright red and grey hardware can be seen in Figure 11’s charred leftovers on the Statoil site from July 5, 2014 below (six days after the fire). It is also all Halliburton equipment. The quantities and arrangement are different, but the equipment and process are the same. The numbers on the provided legend or chart should help identify the specific pieces of equipment. The newly constructed containment berm is also clearly visible here.

Statoil 11

Figure 11. Statoil site post-fire equipment identification

The above or a similar photo has been seen by many neighbors both in OH and WV. Hardly anyone can recognize what they are looking at. Even those people who are somewhat familiar with general hydraulic fracturing operations are puzzled. Nothing is obvious when viewing charred remains of burned iron, steel, and melted aluminum. All tires (over 400 of them) have been burned off the rims. Every bit of rubber, foam, composites, plastics and fiberglass truck cabs has been consumed – which is what made the black plume of smoke potentially so dangerous.

Statoil 12

Fig. 12. 16 fracturing pumps

Statoil 13

Fig. 13. 18-wheeler

What might not be so obvious is why the fire could not be extinguished.

If we look at a close-up of a small section of the well pad (Fig. 12) it is easy to see how crowded the well pad is during fracturing. The 16 fracturing pumps are all the size of a full-length 18-wheel tractor trailer (Fig. 13). Note the three fuel tanks.

The fire began between the blender-mixer trucks and the 16 hydraulic fracturing pumps. The blenders were between the fracturing pumps and the sand kings. Halliburton always keeps fire extinguishers available at every truck. They are put on the ground in front of every pump truck. Everyone knows where to find them. However, on any fracking project that location is also the most congested area. The fracturing pumps are usually parked no more than two feet apart. It is just enough room for an operator or maintenance fellow to get between them. With high pressure fluid spraying and the fire already started and now spreading, there is precious little room to maneuver or to work. It is a plumbing nightmare with the dozens of high pressure pipes connecting all the pumps together and then to a manifold. In those conditions, in the face of multiple fuel sources, then the many small explosions, prudence and self-preservation dictates a swift retreat.

To their credit, Halliburton employees knew when to retreat. No one was injured. We just burned up some trucks (and killed some fish). All the employees and all the first responders were able to go home safely, uninjured, to their families and friends. They survived a very dangerous situation to come back again in the service of their employer or their community. We wish them well.

Some Observations and Conclusions

  1. The hydraulic fracturing process is dangerous, even when done properly.
  2. Environmental and employee safeguards must be in place because “accidents will happen.”
  3. Setbacks from personal farm and residential buildings must be great enough to protect all.
  4. Setbacks from streams and creeks and rivers must be taken very seriously, especially when private or municipal water supply systems are downstream.
  5. Our communities must know what all chemicals are being used so that correct lab protocols are established ahead of time to test for contamination.

This now ends this first article addressing the Statoil Fire, its burned fracturing equipment, and the resulting water contamination. Later, I will show many examples of the quantity of equipment used on fracturing sites and why it is there. You patient readers thought this would never end. You now know more about Statoil, well pad fires, and fracturing hardware than you ever wanted to know. We will soon address the more generic questions of fracturing equipment.

Statoil Eisenbarth Well Pad Fire – An Introduction

By Bill Hughes, Community Liaison, FracTracker Alliance

Monroe County on the eastern border of the State of Ohio and Wetzel County in West Virginia are very much neighbors. They literally share a very deep connection, at least geologically and physically, as they are separated by a very long, deep, 1000-foot wide valley, filled by the Ohio River. A bridge connects the surface land and its residents.

But if you literally dig a little deeper, actually a lot deeper (as in 7,000 feet down), we are seamlessly joined by the Marcellus shale layer. Below this layer, we are joined by other black shale formations where the natural gas and some of its unwelcome neighbors live.

I live in Wetzel County. From where I am sitting I am surrounded by multiple shale gas operations – and have been for over seven years. I have Chesapeake to the north; EQT to the southeast; Stone Energy to the west; Statoil to the east; and HG Energy to the south. They all are primarily extracting gas from the Marcellus formation, but just a few miles to the north of here is a Utica formation well pad (situated below the Marcellus Shale layer). It is being fracked as I write this article.

Externalizing Business Costs

Setting aside the different political and regulatory differences that might exist when comparing WV & OH, the terrain, topography, and cultural history are very similar. The impact of shale gas extraction in a rural community seems to be the same everywhere it is happening, as well. We have all had traffic congestion, road accidents, problems with air and water quality, and waste disposal challenges. All of the drilling companies use fresh water from the Ohio River or its tributaries. WV gas producers take much of their brine and flowback fluids to injections wells in OH for disposal. The grateful OH drillers truck their waste products to our landfills here in Wetzel County and the operators seem pleased with the arrangement. Externalizing costs to our communities seems to be an accepted and tolerated business model.

About Statoil

Statoil is a large natural gas producer from Norway. They have wells both here in Wetzel, WV and in Monroe County, OH. On June 28 and 29 of 2014, a massive fire burned out of control on a Statoil well pad called Eisenbarth in Monroe County (map below), during a routine hydraulic fracturing operation. The size, impact, and cause of the Statoil Eisenbarth fire deserve a lot of attention. Since I have Statoil well pads near me, I am somewhat concerned. Therefore, I will be writing about this specific fire and some of the implications for all of us.

A Series of Incident Articles

This photo essay will be presented in two sections. The first will describe the fire along with some of the details and published reports. The second part will use the photos and information to help us all better understand what is meant when we simply make comments on “fracking.” Additionally, I will show which components are commonly present during the hydraulic fracturing process. Explore the in-depth look at this incident.

Location of the Eisenbarth Pad where the June 2014 Statoil Fire occurred

Location of the Statoil Eisenbarth fire that occurred in June 2014. Click to explore our Ohio Shale Viewer.