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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
Efforts to Limit the Fire
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.
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.
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:
- Why was there no perimeter berm?
- Why could the fire not be put out quickly and easily? What all was lost? What did this site look like in the beginning?
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
- The hydraulic fracturing process is dangerous, even when done properly.
- Environmental and employee safeguards must be in place because “accidents will happen.”
- Setbacks from personal farm and residential buildings must be great enough to protect all.
- Setbacks from streams and creeks and rivers must be taken very seriously, especially when private or municipal water supply systems are downstream.
- 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.