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Few answers in April gas well blowout

Profile image for By Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe / Staff Writer
By Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe / Staff Writer

After three months of reflection and several government reports, key questions remain unanswered following a gas well blowout on April 19 near homes, businesses and Denton Enterprise Airport, including why it took hours for anyone to call either 911 or state regulators.

City records show, in fact, that it was a city fire inspector who first alerted 911 dispatchers to the emergency. EagleRidge Operating called Denton’s fire inspector at 10:45 a.m. — about 15 minutes before a state inspector and well control specialists were to arrive — to say they had lost control of the Smith-Yorlum 7H gas well.

EagleRidge also called the Texas Railroad Commission about 10:30 a.m., although the incident began hours earlier, at about 1:30 a.m., when pipe separated, well pressure changed and fluids started coming out of the hole, according to city and state documents.

Blowouts, while uncommon and the result of various factors, come with great risks. In December 2005, an operator lost control of a Barnett Shale gas well being drilled near Brad in Palo Pinto County. The ensuing explosion blew a 750-foot-wide crater in the ground, and the fire burned uncontrollably for several days. Workers had left the site when trouble began hours before, but one crew member was injured when the flames engulfed his truck as he sat nearby.

Concerns for a flash fire in Denton that April day were outlined in preliminary reports from the Railroad Commission and Texas Commission on Environmental Quality inspectors. The Denton police and fire departments had arrived just before 11 a.m. and shut down Jim Christal Road, ordering the evacuation of four nearby homes and the diversion of flights at the airport.

Long before, however, resident Pam Brewer said she awoke to a pulsating roar coming from the well site at about 3 a.m. By dawn, she was able to take a short video of the spewing gas and fluids. On her way to work, having left her daughter and newborn granddaughter behind at home, she drove by crew members sitting in their pickups. None of them were on the pad site, she said.

Hours later, her daughter and grandchild were among those ordered to evacuate, with admonitions not to do anything that would create a spark, such as turning on lights. Her daughter was so upset, Brewer said, that she forgot to properly buckle her newborn’s car seat. Later, when her husband tried to return home, he was stopped by the fire department and was made to wait until the well was capped and the scene cleared.

Most states have “Good Samaritan” laws that protect people who act in good faith to help someone in an emergency. A handful of states, such as Vermont and Wisconsin, go further and make it a crime to fail to call 911 in an emergency. Those laws are often adopted after people fail to call authorities for fear of retribution. For example, a Michigan man lobbied for such legislation in 2007 after his grandson collapsed from a methadone overdose and friends didn’t call 911 until it was too late.

EagleRidge President Mark Grawe declined to comment through an intermediary, citing the ongoing investigation into the event.

City, state and federal records showed the lack of notification for the incident was not limited to local first responders.

No one notified TCEQ until long after the Railroad Commission inspector, police, firefighters and well control specialists were on the scene, according to city documents.

Air quality samples were gathered when the incident was nearly over. Fort Worth-based Cudd Well Control, which EagleRidge first contacted at 5:30 a.m., had arrived at 11 a.m. and capped the well at 3:39 p.m., according to state documents.

One 30-minute air quality sample was collected downwind at 3:21 p.m. and another 30-minute sample was collected upwind at 4:11 p.m., according to state records.

The downwind sample detected 46 of the 84 hazardous air pollutants tested for, including benzene and ethylene dibromide, or EDB. Upwind, the sample detected 27 of 84 chemicals. Neither benzene nor EDB was detected upwind, state records showed.

Both benzene and EDB have been found to cause cancer, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

In addition, a report from the National Response Center, a federal agency charged with coordinating notifications for oil and chemical spills, shows that someone called that agency about the blowout at 10:52 p.m. In the minutes that followed, that agency notified 20 other agencies and offices, including the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and select criminal intelligence units — but more than seven hours after the incident was over.

City police and fire departments responded appropriately once they were notified, according to a Denton city staff report in May, but “additional vetting” was needed to figure out why it took so long for them to be notified and how that could be changed in the future.

That vetting hinged, in part, on more information from state agencies. Initially, the city expected a report in May from the Railroad Commission that would include information not only on the emergency response but also on soil contamination and remediation.

Ramona Nye, spokeswoman for the Railroad Commission, said that report is not expected until September. Meanwhile, she said the agency has recommended enforcement action against EagleRidge under Statewide Rule 20, which requires operators to “give immediate notice of a fire, leak, spill or break to the appropriate commission district office.”

The staff also expected a report from the TCEQ at the end of June, but that report also has not been released, according to the city’s gas well inspector, Darren Groth.

City spokeswoman Lindsey Baker said the city staff is waiting for a comprehensive report from the Railroad Commission about the incident in order to finish its work.

“The fire marshal cannot complete his investigation without it,” Baker said.

However, the city does expect a 911 call in future emergencies, Baker said.

EagleRidge has been active on the west side of town redrilling older wells. The Smith-Yorlum 7H was originally known as the Bradford 1, a vertical well permitted in 2003. Of the 438 or so wells in the city of Denton and its extraterritorial jurisdiction, EagleRidge has more than 60. Most are older, vertical wells for which EagleRidge has claimed vested rights with the city.

In other words, EagleRidge maintains that it can go back into those older wells, the way that it did with the Bradford, and redrill them as horizontal wells without being subject to any of the city’s new, stricter rules that include greater setbacks and other public safety measures.

In the coming months, the company is expected to redrill two new wells at an old one adjacent to the athletic village at the University of North Texas, since it already has its state permits, Groth said.

Matt Fry, a Denton resident who jogs by Apogee Stadium as part of his fitness routine, has noticed the small rig pulling pipe from the old well. He has been following the company’s compliance history locally.

“They must have no qualms about being there in the midst of football season,” Fry said.

Three EagleRidge well sites were among the 10 well sites that failed city inspections in 2012. Also in 2012, an EagleRidge employee was indicted on felony illegal dumping, after city employees allegedly saw him pumping wastewater from a drill site into a nearby creek in September 2011. The district attorney’s office later dropped the charges.

Brewer decided for her family, she won’t wait if something happens again. She said she plans to call the fire department herself.

PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881 and via Twitter at @phwolfeDRC.