MOUNDSVILLE, W.Va. - In 2010, a pair of explosions at natural gas drilling sites in Marshall County, West Virginia, caused quite a stir in the community, as the fires could be seen from several miles away.
Though the risk for other such accidents continues - and drilling-related traffic altercations seem to become more common - drillers are working to improve their safety practices while developing the Marcellus and Utica shale fields.
One explosion occurred in June 2010 when workers at an AB Resources well site hit a "shallow pocket" of methane gas a little more than 1,000 feet below the ground. In addition to injuring several workers, this ignited a large fireball that burned for days.
Traffic accidents on steep, narrow, winding country roads related to natural gas drilling operations have become common in Marshall and Wetzel counties in West Virginia. (AP Photo)
As a result, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection temporarily suspended all of AB Resources' drilling operations throughout the state. AB Resources has since been purchased by Chevron.
The other explosion took place at a site operated by Chesapeake Energy, currently the most active driller in northern West Virginia and eastern Ohio. For this fire, the West Virginia DEP cited Chesapeake for "failing to prevent the release of natural gas and the potential pollution of waters of the state."
Smaller fires and leaks throughout Marshall County on sites operated by Gastar Exploration and Trans Energy Inc. have also taken place, while traffic accidents related to drilling continue. Other problems include allegedly unauthorized stream fillings by Chesapeake and alleged water pollution by natural gas processor Caiman Energy.
Chesapeake's Senior Director of Corporate Development Stacey Brodak acknowledges that natural gas operations are not without their challenges. However, she said her company has "continuously reviewed and improved our operations" since beginning to work in the Mountain State's Northern Panhandle four years ago.
"Chesapeake's top priority is the safety of area residents, our workers and the environment," she said, noting workers are empowered to "stop work on any site as needed and to check on safe operating precautions and procedures."
Brodak said Chesapeake has also replaced the use of pits to collect drill cuttings and wastewater, noting, "We dry and solidify the non-hazardous cuttings in the tanks and dispose of them in approved landfills.
"We now recycle and reuse nearly 100 percent of produced water from a hydraulic fracturing job instead of taking the water to an approved facility for treatment," she continued. Hydraulic fracturing is the formal name of the fracking procedure that gas companies use once wells are drilled to break the rock and release the gas.
"The water is collected and contained on site, filtered, and simply used in the next well at the same site or on another location," she said. "This eliminates the need for disposal, reduces the amount of fresh water needed at the next location and helps reduce the number of trucks on the road."
In acknowledging the high number of large trucks that take up space on narrow local roads, Brodak said Chesapeake has spent about $70 million to upgrade and repair 83 miles of damaged roads in the Mountain State's Northern Panhandle.
"In some cases, we've implemented pre-emptive road maintenance to strengthen and improve roads before our operations begin," she said. "Our repair projects have been well received as we leave the roads in better shape than they were in before we arrived."
Several local school districts have expressed concern over the past few years about the possibility of large drilling trucks encountering school buses filled with children on the area's secondary roads. This led to many local drilling companies working with the school systems to ensure their trucks would not be on the road when school buses were present.
"We have a zero tolerance policy for incidents when it comes to school buses and share that with all of our drivers and subcontractors," Brodak said.
Profitability of certain wells - especially those that contain "wet" gas with ethane, butane, propane and pentane, in addition to the methane natural gas - has also shifted Chesapeake's focus in Marcellus and Utica shale development.
"We've seen significant improvement in well performance as we work continuously to optimize every facet of our operations," Brodak said. "When Chesapeake began drilling the Marcellus, we were focused on natural gas. Since then, the focus has shifted toward liquids rich shale plays."
Community outreach is also an important part of Chesapeake's operations, Brodak said.
"We host a number of community meetings providing for area residents to learn more about our operations and to have their questions answered. We also provide weekly operational updates to community leaders and emergency responders so all know what is occurring at each of our sites at all times," she said.
Matt Pitzarella, director of corporate communications and public affairs for Range Resources Corp., said, "We're high tech and dynamic. So we've pretty dramatically improved how we work, which is now more efficient and productive.
"The big thing for us is we've learned that were not an industry that will operate below the radar," he admitted. "People have questions and they have the right to have their concerns, real or perceived, to be addressed in an honest and transparent way."