Leak in 100-year-old gas well emptied Southeast Regional Medical Center for months

An old natural gas well is the suspected cause of a gas leak that has kept a Waynesburg medical building empty for three months.

Southwest Regional Medical Center’s two-story medical arts building was first evacuated for the day on Jan. 14, when Peoples Natural Gas discovered high concentrations of methane while inspecting its pipeline there. Two days later, officials detected gas again and the building has been vacant since.

The leaking well belongs to Vantage Energy, a Colorado-based oil and gas company that drills shale gas wells in Greene County and inherited the 100-year-old shallow well last year. The well, named J&B Miller 600725, was drilled more than 100 years ago and sits about 800 feet from the medical arts building.

It's unclear why the leak materialized at the time it did.

Fred Baldassare, a geophysical consultant hired by the medical center to investigate the source of the leak, installed a mitigation system at the building to siphon the gas from the ground and divert it into the air. 

Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, which stepped up its efforts in this case in February, required two companies to test four nearby gas wells to see which might match the signature of the gas found in the soil under the medical arts building.

Vantage got its results on Feb. 19, according to Mr. Baldassare's record. He was notified on March 10.

"It is like a bullseye," the consultant said.

The soil sample gas had a nearly identical signature to one of the shallow gas wells.

The next day, Mr. Baldassare drove down to Waynesburg to take further readings and discovered that the mitigation system he put in was being overwhelmed with increasing amounts of gas. Several entry points had levels of methane approaching the explosive level.

"We knew the problem was big," he said.

The investigation showed that it's mostly likely holes in the casing that have allowed gas from the well to escape into the ground.

Vantage "killed" the well on March 14 by flooding it with enough water to prevent the gas from flowing. Two days later, the indoor air measurements for gas were at zero.

A spokeswoman for Vantage confirmed the company will be permanently plugging the well but declined to answer any other questions about the incident. When a well is plugged, a company pulls out the casing before cementing the well bore. That could provide further information about the pipe's integrity.

Mr. Baldassare, who spent two decades investigating methane migration cases at the DEP before branching out on his own in 2010, said the situation at Southwest Regional Medical Center isn't a common one.

At the DEP, Mr. Baldassare would often be called in after an explosion. Here, he said, the worst-case scenario was avoided. But the situation was nevertheless "an emergency."

"This problem could have gotten bigger and migrated over to the hospital and that would have been really a different dynamic," he said.

No gas has been detected at the main medical center, which is across a parking lot from the medical arts building.

Joy Eggleston, spokeswoman for the Southwest Regional Medical Center, said six physician practices at the medical arts building were affected. Those practices were able to relocate, but it often meant temporarily interrupted phone service and longer drives for patients and physicians, she said.

“It has just been a logistical nightmare to try to manage through this process,” Mrs. Eggleston said.

While not able to provide a specific cost numbers, Mrs. Eggleston said she expected the loss to the medical center would be “hundreds of thousands of dollars,” noting that some physicians were unable to see patients for at least a week.

In addition, she said, the gas mitigation system cost more than $40,000.

Anya Litvak: alitvak@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1455. Steve Twedt: stwedt@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1963.

First Published March 19, 2014 1:29 PM

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