Marcellus Shale Emergency Plans
The Marcellus drillers have arrived in Allegheny County.
The following is a transcript of a report by Team 4 investigator Jim Parsons that first aired Nov. 17, 2010, on WTAE Channel 4 Action News at 5 p.m.
Take a look at this map. These are all the land parcels where energy-related leases have been signed -- almost 3,000 of them, a tenfold increase over the number from just two years ago.
And get this: There's no requirement that drillers provide the county fire marshal with plans for handling emergencies.
In Washington County, this is now a common sight -- drilling rigs stretching more than 100 feet into the sky and massive wastewater ponds so big you don't need our Sky 4 helicopter to see them. Google Earth provides a bird's-eye view.
And now, the drillers are in Allegheny County too. Without publicity, the first Marcellus wells went up recently in Fawn Township and in Frazer Township, right next to Pittsburgh Mills mall.
Bob Full: "There's a lot of danger at those sites."
And yet, the Allegheny County fire marshal says Marcellus drillers are not filing emergency plans with local fire departments.
Bob Full: "Very little or none out there, that I'm aware of, that I'm hearing from the majority of my counterparts out there."
But the drillers aren't violating any rules. They're not required to file emergency plans.
Bob Full: "Not right now. There's no formal requirement for that."
And Full admits that local firefighters have no idea how to deal with an explosion or fire at a Marcellus drilling site.
Bob Full: "Our emergency services personnel cannot be held responsible for putting out something along those lines."
This is what can happen when things go wrong at a Marcellus drilling site: An explosion and fire last June in West Virginia sent seven rig workers to Pittsburgh hospitals. But the really scary moment came after, when firefighters admitted they had no plan for dealing with the emergency.
Danny Moore, Moundsville VFD (June 7): "Actually, we went into something this morning that we didn't know what we was going into, what chemicals or whatever that was on scene or on site, and how many people work that job. There was nobody there to feed us any information for awhile."
Chris Hallowich: "For over 65 minutes, I ended up filming a massive release at the plant next to us."
Chris and Steph Hallowich's home in Mt. Pleasant Township, Washington County, is 300 yards from a natural gas processing station that unexpectedly spewed methane one day last April.
Chris Hallowich: "I called 911. They didn't know what to do. I called the gas plant. They didn't know what to do."
Parsons: "What do you mean, 911 didn't know what to do? What did they tell you to do?"
Chris Hallowich: "They told us to call the owner of the facility, and we pretty much did that already, and it took over 60 minutes for someone to finally show up."
Matt Pitzarella: "The reason 911 was not notified is that it was not an emergency situation."
Range Resources spokesman Matt Pitzarella says the plant owner intentionally released gas and air that day last spring in order to clear the lines. But he admits no one told the Hallowiches about that ahead of time.
Pitzarella: "The company involved learned a lesson that, you know what? We have to go out of our way to notify people."
Lisa Zimmerman: "Allegheny County residents are going to go crazy."
Lisa Zimmerman and her husband, George, are raising three young children on land surrounded by Marcellus Shale drilling in Hopewell Township, Washington County.
This is what happened to a wastewater pond and holding tank on their property last year.
George Zimmerman: "And it made an explosion that was seen 12 miles away. It rattled my house that morning."
He says the fire burned out of control for eight hours.
George Zimmerman: "The firefighters in this town just never handled something like this, and when I was talking to one of them, he said, 'We just don't know what to do, we were never trained to take that kind of a fire.'"
Jim Cannon, Range Resources: "We have a worker who went over the hill in a piece of equipment."
Local fire companies got their first-ever Marcellus Shale training drill last month, sponsored by Range Resources. But instead of learning about fires and explosions or chemical spills, the disaster scenario was an injured worker.
Chief Dave Hildebrand, Claysville VFD: "It's pretty much the same as going out on a car wreck. People do get ejected down over an embankment at car wrecks, so it's pretty much the same deal all the way around, as far as I'm concerned."
The reason local fire crews aren't learning about fighting fires at Marcellus Shale rigs? They've decided to leave that to the drillers.
Parsons: "The firefighting part of it, the catastrophe part of it, is up to them to handle?"
Don Narignon: "Initially. We're there for backup."
Don Narignon: "They have response teams that will be on site probably before the fire department is. Our role, basically, is protection and evacuation in an event at one of the sites."
Range Resources does have an overall plan for how their experts would deal with emergencies in Washington County, but not for each individual drilling site. The county's chief emergency official says it isn't necessary.
Jeff Yates: "We've responded to industrial accidents, accidents in transportation. This is really no different."
Parsons: "But there is a difference. These are moving into neighborhoods."
Yates: "Well, there are trains that carry hazardous chemicals that go through neighborhoods."
Duquesne University professor Kent Moor: "As the drilling accelerates, the potential for accidents will increase right along with it. There has to be a greater coordination. Certainly, the Department of Environmental Protection in Harrisburg ought to be overseeing and coordinating this for the commonwealth as a whole."
In the meantime, Marcellus gas well drilling is inching closer to schools, closer to homes. There's no avoiding it in Allegheny County, no avoiding it statewide with a projected 40,000 wells.
Steph Hallowich: "I mean, you can't put stuff like this right next to people's homes and schools and churches and not be able to deal with the accidents that could happen."
Lisa Zimmerman: "II'll tell you what. Allegheny County? See what happens then."
Lisa Zimmerman: "Everyone's aware of it, but I don't think you realize, or maybe you don't care quite as much until it's you."
There is help on the way.
Sen. Bob Casey's office tells us he expects to introduce a bill in Congress this week that would give OSHA the power to implement new safety rules for Marcellus Shale drillers. Those rules would include a requirement for drillers to notify local first responders within 15 minutes of an emergency occurring.
Also, Allegheny County is working on a set of safety requirements, now that the first wells have been drilled here.
Here is a list of contacts in the event of an emergency at a Marcellus Shale drilling site, gas processing plant or compressor station:
County Emergency Response
Allegheny County Health Department
Pennsylvania DEP Emergency Response
Southwest Pa., call 412-442-4000 (24 hours)
Northwest Pa., call 814-332-6945 (after hours, 800-373-3398)
National Response Center (only to be used for major gas and oil spills)