Laura Arenschield | Columbus Dispatch
CLARINGTON, Ohio — Phillip Keevert, the only paid firefighter in Monroe County, was working a diesel spill on the morning of June 28 when a 911 dispatcher called his cellphone about another emergency.
Keevert was out of range of the county’s radio system, so he got in his truck and drove toward town. As he got closer, the radio static gave way to snippets of conversation.
He heard the word “well.” More static. Then the word “fire.”
One tanker truck was on fire at a StatOil North America well pad in Clarington. Now, two trucks were on fire. Now, three.
Keevert turned onto Rt. 78 east heading toward Clarington, about a 30-minute drive from the well pad, and saw a thick plume of black smoke cutting into the sky.
“It was like a bomb had gone off,” he said. “Just coal-black smoke, just rolling.”
Three years ago, before the shale-gas industry started booming in Ohio, oil and gas companies had permits for five hydraulically fractured wells in Monroe County, a rural county of about 15,000 people along the Ohio River near the West Virginia and Pennsylvania borders.
As of June 28, the day a well pad caught fire there, oil and gas companies had permits for 135 wells that either had been or could be hydraulically fractured, or fracked.
Three years ago, Keevert said, the county’s firefighters battled flames at homes or businesses. They helped during floods and severe storms.
Keevert, who has been working for the county’s emergency-management agency since 2003, said the oil and gas industry has, in many ways, helped Monroe County.
It’s brought jobs, something desperately needed in a part of the state where coal-mining and factory jobs are dwindling.
But for a county with few resources, it has also brought headaches for emergency responders.
The StatOil fire started when a hydraulic tube used during the fracking process broke, according to preliminary reports. The broken line sprayed fracking fluid onto hot equipment, igniting it.
Twenty trucks went up in flames. Tires exploded. Chemicals burned.
No workers were hurt, but one firefighter was treated for smoke inhalation. About 25 people who live near the wells were evacuated.
For the firefighters, it was an exercise in frustration.
The firefighters’ radio equipment wouldn’t work at the site without a communications truck, something Monroe County doesn’t own. The nearest trucks, in Guernsey and Athens counties, were both in the shop.
So the firefighters waited seven hours for a communications truck to arrive from Columbus.
Firefighters use a special type of foam to put out chemical fires, and the firefighters had that foam. But their trucks were not outfitted with the best equipment to spray that foam from a distance.
And, firefighters say, it would have been helpful if they’d known sooner what chemicals were on fire.
Oil and gas drilling is not new in Ohio. For years, traditional wells have drilled vertically into the ground to tap into oil and gas deposits.
To access the natural gas in shale, though, drilling companies use a different process.
First, they drill down into the ground, then cut sideways into the shale. They build casings of steel and cement to protect surrounding soil from contamination. They send explosives to blast holes in those casings so they can access the shale.
Then they inject a mix of water, sand and chemicals under high pressure to fracture the shale. The fracture — the “frack” — releases oil and gas trapped in shale deposits.
Those chemicals can pose problems for firefighters during a blaze.
When firefighters got to the StatOil fire on June 28, a company employee told them the papers listing the chemicals that were on the well pad that day were inside a trailer. The trailer was on fire.
A list of the chemicals had to be brought in from a nearby town.
The explosives that blast through a well’s casings to allow the shale to be fracked were also on the site as the fire burned, prompting concerns about where and when they would explode.
There were also power struggles.
The day the StatOil well pad caught fire, firefighters and StatOil’s employees could not agree on whether the firefighters should be allowed to fight the fire, according to both Keevert and emails obtained by The Dispatch from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.
Keevert said StatOil officials kicked the firefighters off the well pad several times.
It got so bad, according to EPA emails, some firefighters eventually refused to continue fighting the fire.
The firefighters eventually got the fire under control, though it continued to smolder in spots for six more days.
In the two months since the blaze, officials from the Ohio EPA and Department of Natural Resources have been meeting with oil and gas industry officials, state fire officials and politicians to figure out how to fix what went wrong that day.
Bethany McCorkle, an ODNR spokeswoman, said after the fire that all the agencies were working on ways to improve the way they communicate during an emergency.
Gov. John Kasich said firefighters should always have access to a list of the chemicals on a well pad, including the ones protected by trade-secret laws.
Mike Chadsey, a spokesman for the Ohio Oil and Gas Association, which lobbies on behalf of the industry, agreed that firefighters should know what chemicals are on a drilling site. “Let’s put it online where it belongs, where it can be easily updated,” he said.
But the industry has not always been forthcoming with that information.
In the StatOil fire, both the Ohio and U.S. EPAs waited five days to learn what made up the proprietary chemicals that were on the well pad during the fire.
Keevert said that as shale drilling has increased in Monroe County, he has asked companies to give him a list of emergency contacts and an emergency plan before they start drilling.
He’s not required by law to ask for that information, and companies are not required to give it to him. But many do voluntarily.
StatOil never answered his request.
StatOil did not return a call for comment last week, but Keevert said he has had conversations with the company since the fire and he is optimistic.
Chadsey said the oil and gas industry has tried to help firefighters deal with the possibility of drilling emergencies by organizing and paying for training workshops.
The workshops started 13 years ago. About 1,000 firefighters have attended them, said Rhonda Reda, executive director of the Ohio Oil and Gas Energy Education Program, which puts on the sessions.
Teresa Mills, Ohio organizer with the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, said firefighters need access to chemicals on a drilling site. And, she said, they need money to buy the right equipment for fighting drilling fires.
Ohio’s lawmakers are considering ways to help counties do that, mostly involving the severance taxes on the oil and gas industry.
Ohio’s severance taxes on oil and gas are some of the lowest in the country. Those taxes raised about $2.8 million last year in Ohio.
Kasich has asked for a modest increase, and the Ohio House debated the tax before the legislature’s summer break. The state Senate could consider an increase this fall.
Part of that severance tax could go back to the counties where drilling is booming, Mills said.
That money would go a long way in a place like Monroe County, Keevert said.
“The state is taking most of the money out of the counties, and we’re not getting any of that money back,” Keevert said. “And we don’t think that’s fair.”