Fire at Pennsylvania Fracking Site Ignited by “Volatile Vapor,” Cause Still Unknown

Following a flash fire at a hydraulic fracturing site in southwestern Pennsylvania, Chesapeake Energy has closed all wells at the Marcellus shale natural gas drilling pad. The company and Pennsylvania environmental officials said during a news conference yesterday that the fire, which injured three men, was the result of “volatile vapor” that ignited while workers were flow testing the wells at the site. It is not yet known what caused the vapor to ignite.

The fire occurred Wednesday night around 6:15 at a natural gas drilling site operated by Chesapeake Energy’s Chesapeake Appalachia LLC subsidiary in Washington County, Pennsylvania. An explosion ignited a fire that burned for hours. As we’ve reported previously, the started in several of five mobile storage tanks that hold fracking fluid. More than 15 fire companies from Pennsylvania and West Virginia responded to the scene.

Three men injured in the blast were taken to hospitals in Pittsburgh. Two of the men most severely injured are “acutely ill”, according to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. However, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is reporting that the men’s injuries are not life threatening.

At a news conference held yesterday, Chesapeake Energy 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 hydraulic fracturing, as fracking had been completed at the time of the fire. Rather, a flaring operation had begun at the site.

Chesapeake Energy, which according to Reuters, operates 27 Marcellus shale natural gas wells in Pennsylvania and neighboring states, said in a statement that the wells will remain closed until an investigation is complete. The incident is being investigated by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Pennsylvania State Police Fire Investigation Unit.

According to a Reuters report, it is believed that Pennsylvania’s Marcellus shale region holds enough gas to meet total U.S. needs for a decade or more. Over the past several years, the state has experienced a natural gas drilling boom as drillers rushed to set up fracking operations there.

Fracking is a drilling technique that involves injecting water, sand, and a cocktail of chemicals at high pressure into rock formations thousands of feet below the surface. Environmentalists are concerned that the chemicals used in that fracking fluid could contaminate water supplies near drilling sites, and already, such drilling is suspected in several instances of Pennsylvania water contamination. Thanks to a move by Congress in 2005, fracking is exempt from federal regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

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