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Courtesy Norwich Evening Sun

This gas well near Smyrna in Chenango County, belonging to Nornew Inc. Exploration Company, blew up when a rock shard was shot into a fluorescent bulb, sparking a fire that ignited the gas and engulfed the rig. This photo shows a much smaller fire the following day. Nornew’s staff quickly brought the fire under control and the emergency responders were barely engaged.

Emergency responders: Prepare for gas drilling

By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO — June 25, 2010 — Public Safety Commissioner Richard Martinkovic affirmed that Sullivan County’s emergency responders are getting ready for gas drilling.
Surprisingly, that’s not been as intense, time-consuming or expensive as might be expected, basically because the drilling companies are in charge.
“If they should have an incident,” explained Martinkovic, “they have the capacity, experience and training to handle it.”
Martinkovic has spent the past year researching the methods and policies in place in municipalities where drilling is under way. He’s of the mind the county is about as ready as it can be to respond to emergencies at wellpads and pipelines.
In fact, there’s no plan right now to purchase new equipment or training because in many ways, local emergency workers will serve as backup, not as the primary responders.
“The fire department,” Martinkovic illustrated, “does not get involved with a fire coming out of a well.”
Not unless the drilling company asks it to, as fighting a wellpad fire is rather specialized work.
The state fire academy doesn’t even offer training in such, said Martinkovic, and the training provided by drilling companies “is not so much what to do but what not to do.”
Extinguishing a wellpad fire is basically capping a well, he explained, which drillers do on a routine basis.
So instead, the companies want local firefighters to focus on crowd control and site containment, with ambulance crews standing by to treat the wounded.
Simply put, said Martinkovic, they’ll be asked to provide the kinds of services they currently do.
Talking to those who’ve done it
Sullivan County has no gas wells yet. But thousands of acres throughout its western portion have already been leased, so Martinkovic has turned to his upstate counterparts for guidance.
That includes Matt Beckwith, Chenango County’s fire coordinator and director of emergency management.
For five of his six years in that position in the county seat of Norwich, the gas industry – specifically a company called Nornew – has ramped up activity in mostly northern Chenango County, near the Madison County line.
Ironically enough, a tiny town called Plymouth hosted the first of what eventually has become around 80 wells countywide, said Beckwith, and Nornew’s safety manager initiated contact with local fire departments and ambulance corps.
“They met with my HAZMAT team and my staff,” he recalled. “We told them, ‘We’re not going in and turning valves’ – and they didn’t want us to.”
That policy became reality in January 2009, when a Nornew well near Smyrna shot a rock shard into a fluorescent light, creating a spark that ignited the gas and engulfed the drill rig.
“It was shooting up pretty high,” said Beckwith, vividly remembering the frosty night. “It was very visible.”
Five different fire departments and ambulance corps showed up, quickly determining that nobody had been injured or killed.
But thereafter, Nornew took over, using its own staff to redirect the flaming pillar of gas to a flare pipe, designed to burn off excess gas.
“And phfffft! It basically went out,” Beckwith said.
With Nornew’s blessing, the fire departments moved in to coat the steel rig in foam, vigilantly avoiding cooling the structure down too fast – the below-zero temperatures meant a more rapid cooling of the steel could result in a collapse.
In less than an hour, the emergency was over, and following an independent investigation, the well moved into its production phase.
“As far as I know, it’s producing right now,” said Beckwith.
A similar incident occurred just over the Madison County line about two months later, but that too was resolved without injury.
planning for disaster
Beckwith said it all was a result of major planning and coordination between emergency responders and Nornew, way before wellpads were even set up. Neighbors and affected agencies were notified of intents to drill, and once drilling commenced, employees and subcontractors not living up to safe standards were let go by Nornew, he explained.
“It worked to a ‘T,’” he said. “They were doing everything they could to abide by their safety regulations.”
In fact, Nornew reportedly made payments to the involved departments as thanks for their help with the rig fire, though Beckwith wasn’t sure of exact amounts.
No other major incidents have occurred since, he explained, with a few cuts and broken bones the norm – “day-to-day stuff that would happen at any construction site.”
Even those big fires, however, don’t rank that high in Beckwith’s memory – which includes 20 years as a volunteer firefighter.
“Basically, it was the equivalent of a vehicle fire,” he said. “I’ve fought house fires more dangerous than that.”
In fact, he said he’s more worried about youth vandalizing wellpads and hunters accidentally shooting bullets into exposed pipes (neither situation, he added, has yet happened).
In the meantime, he has ensured that Chenango County and its responders have site maps and the full cooperation of Nornew for every wellpad.
“In my opinion, they’ve done a really good job working with the fire departments and ambulance corps,” he observed.

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