IMAGE: EVACUATED HOMES
Gene J. Puskar  /  AP
State workers drill to alleviate a persistent methane problem after evacuating some residents and closing down part of the street in this Versailles, Pa., neighborhood on Monday.
updated 10/18/2007 12:14:00 PM ET 2007-10-18T16:14:00

Residents and officials have known for decades that this small borough sits on hundreds of poorly sealed natural gas wells believed to be emitting methane gas.

But the recent discovery of a second toxic gas has renewed alarm in a community where families already have been evicted and homes have been demolished.

The state began drilling into an old natural gas well and monitoring gas levels in Versailles after The Associated Press reported that federal surveyors had found poisonous hydrogen sulfide while seeking solutions to the methane problem — but had not yet alerted local or county officials.

The origin of the hydrogen sulfide has not been determined, though officials are finding it in some of the gas wells and methane venting pipes in this borough of 1,700 about 25 miles southeast of Pittsburgh.

Methane, an odorless component of natural gas that is flammable, has been seeping into the soil since the late 1960s. Metal pipes designed to vent the gas jut out of sidewalks and yards across town.

In a public meeting organized days after the AP disclosure, federal officials overseeing a study of the methane problem told a packed council chamber that the hydrogen sulfide detected posed no danger to the community.

But the state has hired a private contractor to monitor hydrogen sulfide levels while work is under way this week. The contractor posted a sign near the homes cautioning passers-by of the possible danger of hydrogen sulfide.

Rotten egg smell
As part of a stepped-up remediation effort, a family was temporarily moved out of its home and part of a street closed so crews could drill into an old well and replace a clogged, corroded metal vent with plastic piping.

The vent pipe is one of several where high levels of hydrogen sulfide have been found only recently, despite long-standing reports of a rotten egg smell in the borough.

Maggie Ero, who lives across the street from the evacuated houses, recently had a pipe installed on her property to vent methane from her backyard.

"Why didn't they put us up (in a hotel)? ... We're human," said Ero, her front door blocked as crews drilled out front. "We're sitting in here in my house wondering if we're going to blow up," she said, breaking into tears.

Hydrogen sulfide is a naturally occurring, flammable gas. At low levels, it irritates the eyes, mucus membranes and the respiratory system, and can cause headaches and bronchitis. At high levels, it can be fatal.

At 300 parts per million, hydrogen sulfide is considered toxic.

In November, a well on borough property was sealed off after the U.S. Department of Energy found its level of hydrogen sulfide was 271.6 parts per million and later 331.2 parts per million. The government said that action protected residents from any danger.

'Very expensive' fix
Helen Humphreys, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, said long-term solutions to the methane and hydrogen sulfide problems are interconnected and will begin after the Energy Department releases its report later this month.

"Solving the problem of stray hydrocarbon gas, primarily methane gas, in Versailles is going to be a very expensive proposition," she said.

Methane problems have cropped up across Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Kentucky — wherever there have been large supplies of natural gas, utility officials say.

The problem in Versailles (pronounced ver-SALES) stems from the nearly 660 wells that were drilled after the town discovered in 1919 it was sitting on a natural gas reserve. Within two years, the wells had dried up.

During World War II, residents reopened many of them to sell or donate the pipes as scrap metal for the war effort. Many were not properly capped. Some were sealed only with wooden covers.

Every few years, methane is found on private property. Homeowners and businesses have been forced to put $10,000 vents on their land. In the worst cases, families have been evicted and homes demolished.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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