New Milton —
State and federal investigators and an independent team hired by Antero Resources have begun investigating a natural gas well explosion that burned five workers in north-central West Virginia over the weekend.
Work on the nearly completed Hinterer 1H well near New Milton in Doddridge County has been halted while the state Department of Environmental Protection, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and two independent safety firms hired by Colorado-based Antero investigate what went wrong.
Antero vice president Al Schopp said all five victims were taken with varying degrees of burn injuries to a treatment center near Pittsburgh after the Sunday morning explosion, but he couldn’t immediately provide details on their conditions or say whether any of the injuries was life threatening. Antero did not release their names.
The crew was in the final stages of completing the well, Schopp said, and was inserting a narrow production tube into the metal casing around the drilled hole when methane gas somehow ignited.
The source of the ignition is not yet known, Schopp said. Antero has also begun an internal investigation.
DEP spokeswoman Kathy Cosco said Monday the blast ruptured two tanks containing flow back water that Antero had been reusing, but the secondary containment system captured the fluid as designed and none left the site. There was no contamination to any nearby streams, she said, and the nearest home is about a half-mile away so it was unaffected.
DEP investigators suspect that methane vapors inside one of the tanks exploded, Cosco said, “but we’re not 100 percent sure of what the ignition source was, either.”
Investigators are looking at whether it might have been a pump that the crew was working on, but Cosco said the mechanics of the blast itself will be OSHA’s focus.
Prentice Cline, area director for OSHA’s Charleston office, said he can’t comment on an active investigation but confirmed his agency remained onsite Monday. OSHA has six months to complete its work.
Cosco said the pad has a total of five permitted wells, but Antero hasn’t drilled them all yet.
The explosion is the latest of several high-profile incidents for Antero in West Virginia.
Last August, three workers at the company’s Cottrill No. 3 well in Harrison County were injured when methane from several hundred feet below ground ignited and triggered a fire on the drilling rig floor.
The DEP cited Antero for failure to maintain well control at the pad near Sycamore.
Two months before that, a drilling operation in the Sardis area of Harrison county hit an aquifer and inadvertently re-pressurized a handful of old water wells. That created a backyard geyser at least 10 feet high and several smaller gushers, but no one was injured.
Schopp said at the time that workers had been drilling an initial well hole with just fresh water and air when the bit became stuck. Rather than turn the air flow off, the crew left it on as they tried to withdraw the drill.
That effectively charged up the aquifer, and the trapped air sought an escape. The crew was still thousands of feet away from oil and gas deposits.