Hitting Close to Home – Gas Pad Fire in Avella, PA

By Samantha Malone, MPH, CPH – Communications Specialist, Center for Healthy Environments and Communities (CHEC), University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health (GSPH); Doctoral Student, GSPH

Shale Gas Violations near Avella, PA (small)
Natural gas industry violations since 2007.
Avella, PA can be found by clicking on the image
and then zooming in on the patch of violations
in the center of the map.
Map created using FracTracker’s DataTool.

On February 23, 2011 a section of a natural gas drilling site in Avella, PA caught fire. Luckily only three workers were injured, but the issue still hits close to home – literally. Avella is my hometown. This quiet, farming area is located roughly 35 miles southwest of Pittsburgh in Washington County, PA. (See the map to the right.) It has a large school district geographically, with a tiny population. Known primarily for its rolling hills, farmland, and a historic landsite called Meadowcroft, Avella very rarely makes the headlines in Pittsburgh. That very fact is what peaked my concern when a TV news program mentioned that an incident had occurred on a Chesapeake Energy well site there.

The PA Department of Environmental Protection is currently investigating the fire. Initial reports indicate that volatile vapors that escaped while workers were flow-testing (part of which involves separating the flowback fluid from the natural gas), ignited and then caught nearby tanks on fire.  Volatile vapors can include a number of constituents, such as propane and benzene, which is a known human carcinogen. While there is little evidence to suggest that water contamination occurred as a result of the accident (like the 2009 spill near Cross Creek lake), air quality was most definitely affected. The smell of chemicals burning during the fire was even reported by some nearby residents. Thankfully, based on witness and on-site reports, the cooperation between the various emergency responders meant that the fire only burned for about three hours.

On a side note, I find it interesting that Chesapeake immediately refuted reports that hydraulic fracturing was the cause of the fire. Hydraulic fracturing, a process that breaks apart the shale layer under the ground to release the gas, had apparently been completed on the site. However, the volatile vapors originated from condensate, a result of hydraulic fracturing. Semantics.

Video Update: 3/1/11

3 replies
  1. Sam Malone
    Sam Malone says:

    >Yes, of course legality is always important. My impatience with semantics is because of the way people have hidden behind semantics to protect drilling. E.g. "Hydraulic fracturing has never contaminated groundwater." It is hard enough to make well-informed decisions without having to cut through the industry PR. No industrial process is perfect, and sometimes I wish they would just say, "We messed up, but we are working to fix the mistake and prevent future ones."

    Of course, these are my personal opinions… The real issue at hand is that shale gas drilling involves real, documented risks to health and the environment. We must at some point decide whether those risks are worth the energy obtained. No, I no longer live in Washington County because I am enrolled in classes in Pittsburgh, but I have plenty of family and friends who still live there. I have not forgotten them.

  2. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    >I am very concerned about the safety of citizens and the environment. I am curious as to your impatience with semantics though. Have you ever heard of legality ? Let's be concise about some things but be lax as to others as it suits our agenda. Do you still live in Washington county ? I am so happy locations such as Pittsburgh have only ever shown any interest in us when it concerns the Marcellus Shale. Thanks for all of your superior protection.

  3. ABA_607
    ABA_607 says:

    >Yes, the smoke was too black to be what they say was burning. The first thing a security gueard said to me was its just natural gas burning. I have spent too many hours researching this industry to have someone piss on my leg, and tell me its raining. Then try and sell me an umbrella.

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