When a gas well blows out, you get out fast

When a gas well blows out, you get out fast by Deb Thomas, Otober 16, 2006, High Country News Vol. 38 No. 19
My family and I live in Clark, Wyo., on the Montana-Wyoming border. I used to tell people that I lived on the edge of Yellowstone country. Nowadays, though, I admit that I live in an industrial zone — the kind of place where things can get dangerous and sometimes go very wrong.

Early in the evening of Aug. 11, a neighbor called to say that our area of some 35 households had been ordered to evacuate because of a “blowout” at the Crosby gas well just up the road. A drill rig had punctured a high-pressure chamber some 8,500 feet down the hole, and the well casing had failed under the strain. Short of an explosion or fire, a blowout is the most serious accident one of these wells can experience.

We later learned that the incident had occurred much earlier, at 2 p.m., when rig workers spotted drilling fluids and methane gas erupting up and down the county road, with some of the blowholes 150 feet away from the rig. We also learned that officials of Windsor of Wyoming LLC and its contract crews spent three hours trying to deal with the problem before calling in people from volunteer emergency services. Then they used up yet another hour trying to “evaluate” the situation. Meanwhile, none of us were told that anything was going on.

That afternoon, I’d had a scratchy throat, watery eyes and a runny nose. Unfortunately, that was nothing new; I assumed it was caused by the dust and diesel fumes that had become part of my life. But right after my neighbor called, I noticed that the air seemed thick enough to taste. We debated loading up our horses, but quickly decided to just get our dogs and people into the pickups and blast out of there — as fast as we could. For the next three days, while we camped out with friends or in motels 40 miles away, 8 million cubic feet of methane and vaporized drilling fluids were released into the atmosphere as the company tried to “kill” the well.

My neighbors and my family were kept in the dark about what was happening at the well site. Nor could the company representatives, elected and appointed state officials, county disaster and emergency workers tell us what to expect in the aftermath of what was now called the Windsor blowout. They just kept repeating that a blowout of this magnitude was a “one in a million” occurrence.

What we found most infuriating is that for eight years — during which time Windsor was responsible for three toxic spills and fined for illegal dumping of drilling fluids — we had tried to get our small community to prepare for a disaster like this. Again and again, my neighbors and I asked how a 12-member volunteer first-response team could handle industrial accidents, how our neighborhood could be evacuated safely on a narrow, one-way gravel road, and how medical aid could get to us from 40 miles away.

We reached out to Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal and his appointees at the Department of Environmental Quality, the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission and the State Lands Board. We talked to elected officials, from the conservation district to state legislators to Wyoming’s small congressional delegation. We worked with local first responders, and we attempted to open a dialogue with industry representatives.

Again and again, we were brushed off and insulted — called obstructionists and alarmists, unpatriotic and unrealistic, dismissed as annoying nuts. Well, call us crazy, but as the Windsor blowout demonstrated, accidents do happen — serious, dangerous accidents. We need to be prepared. We need to take a hard look at oil and gas operations throughout Wyoming and throughout the West, scrutinizing environmental and safety records of operators, keeping inventories of toxic chemicals, and demanding realistic evacuation plans.

We were lucky no one was hurt here in Clark, Wyo., but what have we learned? The week after the blowout, Windsor got an Oil and Gas Commission permit to conduct seismic exploration — using shallow blast charges to chart underground gas pockets — on the same property where the accident occurred. A week after that, the company got the go-ahead to resume drilling on the site of the blowout. Most of us are back in our homes now, but we don’t feel safe or comfortable. Some of us are suffering rashes, respiratory ailments, headaches, insomnia and other symptoms of stress. And many of us are ready to run. [Emphasis added]

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