Damaged gas well that spewed fracking fluid halted after 30 hours; investigation continues
February 23, 2013
A damaged natural gas and oil well north of Windsor that spewed 2,000 barrels of greenish-brown "flow-back fluid" and steam for upward of 30 hours was capped Tuesday afternoon.
At about 9:30 a.m. Monday the wellhead suffered a mechanical failure on the surface, located in a field between Weld County roads 72 and 74, just west of Colo. 257. There were no injuries and there was no fire during the malfunction that ultimately sent oil-tainted water shooting horizontally from the damaged port, said Bart Brookman, senior vice president of operations for PDC Energy, the company in charge of the well.
Crews from the company, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission and Windsor Severance Fire Rescue all remained on the scene throughout the incident.
Though the fluids were used in hydraulic fracturing — fracking — about two weeks earlier, the incident itself was not inherently caused by fracking, Brookman stressed.
"We were in a work-over mode where we had a mechanical problem with the work-over rig, which caused damage to the wellhead, which caused the leak," Brookman said Tuesday evening after the spew was halted. "Trying to associate this incident with fracking is not fair."
Todd Hartman, a spokesman for the COGCC, reiterated Tuesday afternoon that the incident "was not a blowout," but instead occurred after equipment fell due to a "hydraulic failure."
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"The equipment dropped and broke a valve," Hartman said in an email. "That, in turn, allowed flow-back to discharge onto the ground."
Throughout the incident, air quality tests were taken to ensure there was no threat of an explosion, he said, adding that the nearest home was about 1,500 feet away from the drill site. Crews at the site dug dirt trenches near the well to collect the substance and prevent ground contamination before it could be plugged, he said. A "vac truck" was also at the scene to collect the fluids.
Soil affected by the substance — which was "almost all water with residual oil and some frac additives — were removed, he said.
"It's clear the company acted aggressively, responsibly and successfully to address the problem," Hartman said Thursday. "We will need time to fully investigate to determine what, if any, enforcement steps would result."
Windsor Severance Fire Rescue and the COGCC took the lead on the incident, as was protocol, according to a spokesperson with the Weld County Department of Public Health and Environment. Because Windsor Severance Fire Rescue was requested by the company to stay on the scene throughout the incident, the department can legally charge PDC Energy for the resources and related costs of Hazmat monitoring.
Fire crews in the area have been trained for emergency situations involving oil and gas since the industry recently exploded across Colorado. Normally they can shut off damaged wells, but this situation was a unique problem, department spokesman Todd Vess said Tuesday morning.
"I don't recall ever having a situation like this in all the natural gas wells we have," said Vess, who has been with the department for 12 years and worked in Windsor for nearly 20 years.
PDC Energy was started in West Virginia in 1969 and has expanded west, including areas throughout Colorado's rich oil and gas formations. By the end of 2011, the company owned an interest in about "6,400 gross productive wells," according to its website. The company also "completed 17 horizontal Niobrara wells in the liquid-rich core Wattenberg field in 2011."
Despite the incident, Brookman said the company plans to take the required steps to get the drilling operation running safely and successfully in the coming weeks. "I'm very confident we've got this thing fixed," he said.