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Chevron Pennsylvania shale well explosion probably caused by human error

11 August 2014

Human error by an inexperienced natural gas well worker probably led to a February explosion that caused a fatal fire on a Marcellus Shale well site in Greene County, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection said. The findings were part of a DEP report released on August 6 following a month-long investigation of the incident on the Chevron well site in Dunkard that resulted in the death of a field service technician.

State investigators said a Cameron International contractor — called a “greenhat” because of his inexperience — was neither properly supervised nor trained when he was directed to loosen equipment on the wellhead in the process of bringing it into production. The greenhat was not named in the report.

Several days later, one of the “lock pins” was ejected from the well, allowing gas to escape from the well and catch fire.

The report included Chevron’s and Cameron’s own recommendations for ensuring that wellhead equipment remains secure, including training, inspections and testing. Chevron has pledged to apply one measure, involving isolating equipment parts, at future Marcellus Shale wells drilled in the state, that would “completely eliminate the possibility of such a recurrence.”

The DEP review cited problems in Chevron’s communications with the DEP and the media. The company “failed to continually provide meaningful update information” on the incident during scheduled briefings. Poor cell phone reception in the area and limited email and Internet access exacerbated those problems.

For two days after the explosion, Chevron refused to allow state investigators onto the property, in violation of oil and gas laws, the DEP said earlier this year. The company received nine citations for that and other violations.

DEP spokesman John Poister said Chevron’s behaviour after the incident was “simply unacceptable.”

“They were not forthright. They did not let us into strategy meetings,” he said. “When they did brief us, it was very sparse. We had to develop some workarounds to get information from our emergency response people.”

In a prepared statement, Chevron spokeswoman Lee Ann Wainwright said, “We are reviewing the DEP reports, and we look forward to the opportunity to discuss them with the DEP in the near future.

“Chevron is committed to safe operations. We look forward to continuing to work with the Pennsylvania DEP and [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] in order to fully understand what happened with this incident, and we are determined to prevent it from happening again.”

So far, no fines have been issued to Chevron. Mr. Poister said the DEP was awaiting this report to hash out the details of the entire incident with Chevron and begin negotiations over penalties.

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