After nearly three weeks of natural gas pouring out of a well in eastern Ohio, crews working for Exxon’s XTO Energy plugged the well Wednesday morning.
When XTO workers lost control at the Schnegg well pad in Powhatan Point on February 15, there was an explosion, fires and an ongoing gas leak. XTO hired a crew from Texas and Oklahoma that specializes in energy related accidents like this, according to company spokesperson Karen Matusic. Last weekend they cleared debris from the blast, including a construction crane that needed to be dismantled, so they could close the valve at the leaking well.
“We’re…putting plugs down to be able to secure it. But the flow stopped yesterday at about 10 am,” Matusic said Thursday. “And now we’re just starting our investigation phase…to see what went wrong here.”
LISTEN: “Natural Gas Leak Capped After 20 Days”
Initially, 36 homes within a mile radius were evacuated, which meant that about 100 people were moved to hotels. After the initial danger receded, the evacuation was reduced to a half mile. Four families remained under evacuation until the well was plugged this week, and it was deemed safe for them to return to their homes.
“It’s relief for everyone in the community,” said Belmont County Commissioner JP Dutton. “I think things have been handled so effectively in terms of response, I think there was confidence that we’d get to this point.”
XTO worked with local law enforcement and fire officials, as well as state and federal regulators in efforts to assist residents and regain control of the well.
In a report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, XTO estimated that each day the well leaked, 100 million cubic feet of natural gas, and other substances, like brine water, poured out.
To give that perspective, compare it to the leak at Aliso Canyon, an underground gas storage field in California that ruptured in 2015. That leak reportedly poured 49 million cubic feet of gas into the air each day. The XTO well in Ohio emitted twice as much gas, although it lasted 20 days, compared with four months in Aliso Canyon.
Looking at air monitoring results from XTO, Ohio regulators said they did not find elevated levels of volatile organic compounds, like benzene, at sites a half mile and a mile away from the Schnegg pad.
In terms of water, the EPA report estimates that at least 5000 gallons of brine water entered a tributary of Cats Run, home to Eastern hellbender salamanders. The brine water will be sampled for hazardous materials, according to the EPA. Steve Irwin is the spokesperson for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. He says rain and snow that followed the blast diluted the stream, and they haven’t seen negative impacts on the aquatic habitat.
There were no injuries in explosion. Allen Young, 34, lives about two miles from the well pad. He said the gas leak has affected his whole family’s health, especially when XTO was flaring off gas before capping the well this week. “The smell of it was just horrific,” Young said. “We all immediately had headaches. I woke up with dizziness, my wife woke up with a nosebleed. My son woke up coughing.”
The gas industry has developed quickly in this region over the past few years. There are at least two new compressor stations near his house, Young said, that have affected his family’s health. And he said it’s gotten worse since the well disaster.
XTO hasn’t seen a doctor’s note connecting these symptoms with the gas leak, according to Matusic.
The company and regulators will assess the well pad to determine the cause of the explosion. The well will remain offline during the investigation.