These Fish Weren’t Playing Opossum (Creek)
A First-hand Look at the Recent Statoil Well Pad Fire
By Evan Collins and Rachel Wadell, Summer Research Interns, Wheeling Jesuit University
After sitting in the non-air-conditioned lab on a muggy Monday afternoon (June 30, 2014), we were more than ready to go for a ride to Opossum Creek after our professor at Wheeling Jesuit University mentioned a field work opportunity. As a researcher concerned about drilling’s impacts, our professor has given many talks on the damaging effects that unconventional drilling can have on the local ecosystem. During the trip down route 7, he explained that there had been a serious incident on a well pad in Monroe County, Ohio (along the OH-WV border) on Saturday morning.
About the Incident
Hydraulic tubing had caught fire at Statoil’s Eisenbarth well pad, resulting in the evacuation of 20-25 nearby residents.1 Statoil North America is a relatively large Norwegian-based company, employing roughly 23,000 workers, that operates all of its OH shale wells in Monroe County.2 The Eisenbarth pad has 8 wells, 2 of which are active.1 However, the fire did not result from operations underground. All burning occurred at the surface from faulty hydraulic lines.
Resulting Fish Kill?
When we arrived at Opossum Creek, which flows into the Ohio River north of New Martinsville, WV, it smelled like the fresh scent of lemon pine-sol. A quick look revealed that there was definitely something wrong with the water. The water had an orange tint, aquatic plants were wilting, and dozens of fish were belly-up. In several shallow pools along the creek, a few small mouth bass were still alive, but they appeared to be disoriented. As we drove down the rocky path towards the upstream contamination site, we passed other water samplers. One group was from the Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health (CTEH). The consulting firm was sampling for volatile organic compounds, while we were looking for the presence of halogens such as Bromide and Chloride. These are the precursors to trihalomethanes, a known environmental toxicant.
Visiting the Site
After collecting water samples, we decided to visit the site of the fire. As we drove up the ridge, we passed another active well site. Pausing for a break and a peek at the well, we gazed upon the scenic Appalachian hillsides and enjoyed the peaceful drone of the well site. Further up the road, we came to the skeletal frame of the previous Statoil site. Workers and members of consulting agencies, such as CTEH, surrounded the still smoking debris. After taking a few pictures, we ran into a woman who lived just a half-mile from the well site. We asked her about the fire and she stated that she did not appreciate having to evacuate her home. Surrounding plants and animals were not able to be evacuated, however.
Somehow the fish living in Opossum Creek, just downhill from the well, ended up dead after the fire. The topography of the area suggests that runoff from the well would likely flow in a different direction, so the direct cause of the fish kill is still obscure. While it is possible that chemicals used on the well pad ran into the creek while the fire was being extinguished, the OH Department of Natural Resources “can’t confirm if it (the fish kill) is related to the gas-well fire.”3 In reference to the fire, a local resident said “It’s one of those things that happens. My God, they’re 20,000 feet down in the ground. Fracking isn’t going to hurt anything around here. The real danger is this kind of thing — fire or accidents like that.”4
Unfortunately, this sentiment is just another example of the general public being ill-informed about all of the aspects involved in unconventional drilling. This knowledge gap is largely due to the fact that oil and gas extraction companies are not always transparent about their operations or the risks of drilling. In addition to the potential for water pollution, earthquakes, and illness due to chemicals, air pollution from active unconventional well sites is increasing annually.
Using prior years’ data, from 2010 to 2013, we determined that the average CO2 output from unconventional gas wells in 2013 was equal to that of an average coal-fired plant. If growth continued at this rate, the total emissions of all unconventional wells in West Virginia will approximate 10 coal-fired power plants in the year 2030. Coincidentally, this is the same year which the EPA has mandated a 30 percent reduction in CO2 emissions by all current forms of energy production. However, recent reports suggest that the amount of exported gas will quadruple by 2030, meaning that the growth will actually be larger than originally predicted.5 Yet, this number only includes the CO2 produced during extraction. It does not include the CO2 released when the natural gas is burned, or the gas that escapes from leaks in the wells.
Fires and explosions are just some of the dangers involved in unconventional drilling. While they can be immediately damaging, it is important to look at the long-term impacts that this industry has on the environment. Over time, seepage into drinking water wells and aquifers from underground injection sites will contaminate these potable sources of water. Constant drilling has also led to the occurrence of unnatural earthquakes. CO2 emissions, if left unchecked, could easily eclipse the output from coal-fired power plants – meaning that modern natural gas drilling isn’t necessarily the “clean alternative” as it has been advertised.
- Willis, Jim ed. (2014). Statoil Frack Trucks Catch Fire in Monroe County, OH. Marcellus Drilling News.
- Forbes. (2014). Statoil.
- Woods, Jim. (2014). Fish Kill in Eastern Ohio Might be Linked to Fire at Fracking Well. The Columbus Dispatch.
- Cushman, John H., Jr. (2014). US Natural Gas Exports No Better for Climate than China’s Coal, Experts Say.
This shows how important it is to have people who will do their own investigating and reporting on these incidents. So much of this goes unreported. Does anyone yet know what caused this fire? And who will be the agency responsible for determining the amount of damage and the remediation costs that should be paid? And how would anyone know what to test for when some of these chemicals are still allowed their “proprietary” secrecy? And this is only 200 wells in Ohio – that is why we have to stop the 2000 plus that are planned!
Evan and Rachel,
Thanks for this well-written and extensive coverage of this incident. It provides more information and insight than any of the other media coverage pieces I have seen so far.