A blowout at a natural gas well in rural northern Pennsylvania spilled thousands of gallons of chemical-laced water Wednesday, contaminating a stream and leading officials to ask seven families who live nearby to evacuate as crews struggled to stop the gusher.
Chesapeake Energy Corp. lost control of the well site near Canton, in Bradford County, around 11:45 p.m. Tuesday, officials said. Tainted water flowed from the site all day Wednesday, though by the mid-afternoon, workers had managed to divert the extremely salty water away from the stream.
No injuries were reported, and there was no explosion or fire.
"As a precautionary measure, seven families who live near the location have been temporarily relocated until all agencies involved are confident the situation has been contained. There have been no injuries or natural gas emissions to the atmosphere," Chesapeake spokesman Brian Grove said in a statement.
Chesapeake said a piece of equipment failed late Tuesday while the well was being hydraulically fractured, or fracked. In the fracking process, millions of gallons of water, along with chemical additives and sand, are injected at high pressure down the well bore to break up the shale and release the gas.
State environmental regulators took water samples from the unnamed tributary of Towanda Creek on Wednesday but did not report a fish kill. Towanda Creek, which is stocked with trout, empties into the Susquehanna River. Officials said they do not know how the size of the spill.
Neighbor Ted Tomlinson, who was among those asked to evacuate, said he worried that fracking fluids will ruin his drinking water well, several hundred yards from the blown-out well. His well and several other private ones around the Chesapeake gas well were also being tested for contamination.
"The biggest thing is the footprint on the environment," he told WNEP-TV. "Well, obviously this is a big footprint."
Katy Gresh, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, said reports from the scene indicate that fracking water was gushing from the wellhead, pooling on the pad, then escaping containment.
"Discharge of fluids to the unnamed tributary appears to be stopped," she said.
Officials advised the farmer on whose land the well was drilled that his cattle could no longer drink from the stream.
Francis "Skip" Roupp, deputy director of the Bradford County Emergency Management Agency, said a cracked well casing is suspected as the cause of the blowout. Crews tried pumping drilling mud into the well bore in an effort to stop the leak. Gresh said DEP recommended a heavier mud.
The blowout comes amid a natural gas-drilling boom in the Marcellus Shale formation below Pennsylvania and neighboring states. Fracking allows affordable access to gas supplies that once were too expensive to tap. Critics complain that the chemicals used in fracking may be contaminating water supplies.
The Chesapeake spill, coming exactly one year after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, gave environmental groups fresh ammunition to attack fracking as unsafe.
"How many wells need to blow out, how many people need to get sick, how many communities need to be devastated before elected leaders say 'enough is enough'?" said Deborah Goldberg of Earthjustice. "The gas has been there for millions of years, it can stay there a little longer until we figure how _ and if _ we can extract it safely."