By Associated Press Writer
updated 6/7/2010 10:33:12 AM ET 2010-06-07T14:33:12

A crew drilling a natural gas well through an abandoned coal mine in West Virginia's Northern Panhandle hit a pocket of methane gas that somehow ignited, triggering an explosion that burned seven workers, a state inspector said Monday.

The blast created a column of flame at least 70 feet high, and it will likely burn until a team of well fire experts can reach the scene to extinguish it, said Bill Hendershot, an inspector with the Department of Environmental Protection's Office of Oil and Gas.

The fire is in a rural area outside Moundsville and presents no danger to any structures or people, Hendershot said.

Buckhannon-based Union Drilling had drilled to about 1,100 feet when something caused the ignition early Monday, Hendershot said. The company had drilled through the mine before without incident, he said.

Pittsburgh-based Chief Oil and Natural Gas operates the well and others in West Virginia but typically contracts with other companies to do the drilling, said Jeff Funke, area director of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's Charleston office.

Hendershot said Union was the contractor on the Marshall County site. A receptionist in Buckhannon referred calls to corporate headquarters in Fort Worth, Texas, but a telephone message there was not immediately returned.

The seven workers were taken the West Penn Burn Center in Pittsburgh and were in fair condition, a hospital spokeswoman said.

OSHA learned of the accident shortly after 8 a.m. and Funke said a team of two investigators would be dispatched. However, they cannot enter the site and begin work until the fire is out, he said.

Wild Well Control of Houston, Texas, was called to extinguish the fire, but it's unclear how soon its teams may reach the site. A company spokesman did not immediately return a telephone message.

Funke said OSHA created a program to deal with gas drilling in the vast Marcellus shale fields about five years ago and has been proactively inspecting sites to ensure compliance with safety regulations. The gas reserve is about the size of Greece and lies about 6,000 feet beneath New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio.

OSHA knew there would be a lot of drilling in West Virginia and Pennsylvania, "and we did our best to get out in front of that curve," Funke said. "So we're well-equipped to respond to this."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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