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Marcellus, Utica shale field accidents piling up

WHEELING, W.Va. — The ATEX Express pipeline explosion that burned nearly 24,000 barrels of ethane in Brooke County last week is the latest in a series of explosions, fires, leaks and other accidents across the Marcellus and Utica shale fields since 2010.

Nearly two dozen such accidents have occurred since drilling took hold in the local region, leading to several deaths, untold revenue losses for companies and lease holders and unknown future environmental impact.

By comparison, there have been relatively few accidents in the booming Bakken Shale gas and oil play in North Dakota, a state where there are thousands of unfilled jobs because companies simply cannot find enough qualified people to hire.

“I have not seen fires or explosions with pipelines,” said Tessa Sandstrom, spokeswoman for the North Dakota Petroleum Council, which represents the industry. “We did have a fire at a compressor station. There have been some fires with saltwater (brine water) holding tanks.”

Alison Ritter is a spokeswoman for the North Dakota Oil and Gas Division, which regulates the industry. She said one of the main problems they see involves brine water leaking from tanker trucks.

North Dakota currently is dealing with the effects of millions of gallons of saltwater being spilled into a creek that flows into the Missouri River.

“Spills, unfortunately, do happen at well sites,” Ritter said.

“There are times when we have truck drivers intentionally open valves to let the saltwater leak out. And the saltwater disposal wells can catch fire, which has happened.”

Ritter said, in addition to the compressor station fire Sandstrom mentioned, the state once saw a drilling rig catch on fire.

There has been at least one natural gas pipeline explosion in North Dakota, as a line ruptured in February 2014, causing a fire with explosions.

A state long familiar with oil and natural gas drilling, Texas’ most active gas plays are the Barnett Shale and Eagle Ford Shale plays.

“The Barnett Shale is one of the most monitored areas on Earth. We constantly monitor the air with gas chromatographs,” Terry Clawson, spokesman for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, said. “You could have an individual site that has an issue.”

Clawson said there are not as many monitors in the Eagle Ford formation, but said the air there is also tracked.

Richard Hoffman, executive director of the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America Foundation, said the industry works very hard to prevent pipeline problems, such as the ATEX explosion. He said there are 305,000 miles of natural gas transmission pipelines in the U.S.

“I call accidents like that (Brooke County) unfortunate. Our goal is zero incidents,” Hoffman said.

According to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration report on the ATEX blast, agency Associate Administrator Jeffrey Wiese believes the rugged terrain over which the line runs in Brooke County is a problem when compared to the relatively flat land in North Dakota or Texas. He said the “hilly” land creates an increased risk of pipeline failure – something the area has seen several times in the past five years.

Tim Greene, owner of Land and Mineral Management of Appalachia and a former inspector for the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, said industry accidents are not new. However, oil and natural gas drilling pads are now much closer to your “backyard,” which he said creates increased awareness of the problems.

“Because the gas industry in now on everyone’s radar, I am confident the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is, or should be, making more and more inspections; gas industry employees should be going through more intensive and detailed training; and they should be more careful on the job,” Greene said.

“Unfortunately, even with all that, accidents do occur. I am a little surprised when new pipelines catch fire, but it does happen,” Greene added. “With all the dangers that can occur during the different processes, it is no surprise that most companies do not allow non-employees on the pad.”

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