When a Chevron natural gas well exploded in Greene County, killing a worker, the company blocked personnel with the state Department of Environmental Protection from accessing the site for nearly two days. The DEP acquiesced, despite its regulatory authority.
Now, that issue is one of nine violations the DEP outlined in a letter to Chevron last month.
The fire started early on Feb. 11 and continued to burn for five days. When a DEP emergency crew first arrived on the scene in Dunkard Township, Chevron told them to stay away from the site and not to drive their vehicle on the access road. The crew was also blocked from parking an emergency vehicle at a nearby command center.
“They were not allowing anybody close to that well pad, and I think that our feeling though was, as a regulatory agency, we want to be there, we want to see it, we want to know what Chevron is saying,” DEP spokesman John Poister said.
Drilling companies are always required to grant access to DEP officials, regardless of the circumstances, according to their state-issued permits.
When asked why the agency did not enforce its right to access the site, Poister told StateImpact Pennsylvania the agency did “strongly” express its concerns to Chevron and that the relationship between the company and the DEP improved over time.
“When the secretary arrived the day after, we were given much more access,” Poister said.
Secretary Chris Abruzzo told reporters two days after the fire started that he had been able to see the charred well pad from about 500 yards away and could see methane gas “shooting out” of the wellhead.
In its notice of violation letter, the DEP cited Chevron for “hazardous venting of gas,” “open burning,” and “discharge of production fluids onto the ground.” However, Poister stressed that Chevron’s most serious violation was not blocking state regulators, but an equipment failure on the wellhead that is believed to have caused the explosion that took the life of 27-year-old Ian McKee, a contractor on the site.
“That’s what we want to get to the bottom of,” Poister said.
Scott Perry, DEP’s deputy secretary for oil and gas, told StateImpact Pennsylvania that the department’s initial lack of direct access to the site would not impact its investigation.
“It did impede our ability to monitor the conditions at the site, which was one of our concerns, whether or not the conditions could change and pose a threat to public safety,” Perry said.
The DEP is preparing a more detailed after-action report about the incident. The department is planning to meet with Chevron to discuss the violations, which could result in fines.
Lawmakers have praised DEP for a “textbook” response to the fire. However, Chevron has sustained widespread criticism for its response, especially for giving out coupons for free pizza as an apology to nearby residents.
In a statement, Chevron said “the safety of the emergency responders was of paramount concern to Chevron and the participants of the [Unified Incident Command Center] throughout the course of the incident.
“We will continue to cooperate with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and all appropriate regulatory authorities throughout the investigation and thereafter.”
Chevron said it plans to share the results of its own internal investigation.