Chesapeake Appalachia Faces Lawsuit in Pennsylvania Natural Gas Well Fire

Two workers who sustained severe injuries during a fire at a natural gas well earlier this year in Washington, Pennsylvania have filed suit against Chesapeake Appalachia. The lawsuit claims Chesapeake and other defendants were negligent by failing to take steps to identify flammable vapors at the Marcellus Shale natural gas well site and establish plans for how the vapors would be stored and controlled.

Chesapeake Appalachia is a subsidiary of Chesapeake Energy, one of the largest natural gas drillers engaged in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale. Earlier this month, Chesapeake Energy suspended fracking at its natural gas wells in Pennsylvania, following a natural gas well blowout in Bradford County that spilled thousands of gallons of fracking fluid out onto adjacent farmland and into a tributary of Towanda Creek.

The Washington County natural gas fire occurred in February, the result of “volatile vapor” that ignited while workers were flow testing the wells at the site. A total of three workers at the site were injured in the blaze.

As we reported at the time, Chesapeake officials said the flash fire occurred to five 500-gallon tanks containing natural gas liquids and quickly spread to four others. They disputed reports the fire was caused by fracking, as fracking of the well had been completed at the time of the fire.

According to a report from the Washington Observer-Reporter, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has said the driller failed to properly manage flammable byproducts before the fire.

This new lawsuit was filed on behalf of Richard Lancaster, of Sardis, Ohio, and a relative, Frank Lancaster, of New Martinsville, West Virginia. Both plaintiffs were employed as truck drivers for BBU Environmental Services. Their lawsuit was filed in federal court in Charleston, West Virginia, where Oklahoma-based Chesapeake Appalachia has an office.

In addition to Chesapeake Appalachia, the lawsuit also names H & H Oilfield Services, LLC, of Spencer, W.Va., and Signal Completion Services, LLC of Texas as defendants.

The lawsuit asserts that the defendants failed to monitor vapor levels and didn’t have contingency plans in place if vapor levels rose to dangerous levels. It also claims lax oversight of Marcellus Shale gas drillers in Pennsylvania contributed to their injuries. According to the complaint, lax oversight “has created an environment where drillers … believe that they can disregard commonly accepted industry standards and risk the health and safety of workers and local communities without accountability.”

The lawsuit further alleges that Chesapeake Appalachia removed critical evidence after the fire at the scene, known as the Joseph Powers well site.

“Defendants Chesapeake and Signal knew of prior explosions, fires, injuries and deaths caused by failure to manage natural gas vapors and condensate during flow back testing, and despite this knowledge, defendants consciously disregarded commonly accepted industry standards and deliberately exposed the plaintiffs to conditions that could and did cause serious injury,” the complaint states.

One of the plaintiffs, Richard Lancaster, 50, sustained severe burns to his hands that required grafting, as well as burns to his face, neck and ears. He is undergoing physical therapy but may never regain full use of his hands, according to a report from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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