Stranded methane gas in Versailles a century in the making

Just under a century ago, Gary and Terry Hackett’s garage on Second Street in Versailles was a wooden derrick pulling gas out of the famous Snake Hollow field, the scene of what the Pittsburgh Press in 1934 described as the region’s “biggest boom and loudest crash.”

Eighty years later, that well almost cost the Hacketts their home.

In 1986, thirteen years after the couple bought their house next to the railroad tracks, workers from Equitable Gas came around and surveyed a patch of brown among a field of green grass in their backyard. A few weeks later, the gas company shut off service to the house. Duquesne Light did the same. It remained shut off for months.

The concentrations of methane under the property were so distinctly in the explosive range that the couple was told their home might need to be demolished.

Mr. Hackett, in a last-ditch effort to save his house and acting on the advice of a consultant working to identify and mitigate stray gas migration in the area, took a jack hammer to his garage floor. Within minutes, he hit a pipe. A large spark flew up, he said, then a deafening sound.

Mr. Hackett and a dozen others watching the experiment bolted out of the garage. His wife, who was hanging laundry on the clothesline outside, ran for the railroad tracks.

The old pipe spewed gas loudly and forcefully for about a minute. Then, as quickly as it came, the flow stopped. At that point, Mr. Hackett could see what had been under his garage foundation all these years — a pipe about six inches in diameter, capped with concrete and punctured by metal straw in the middle. It was one of the original Snake Hollow wells.

“It was like hitting the lottery,” he said.

Not exactly. For all the annoyance that such pockets of gas have caused Versailles residents over the past 50 years, it is believed there’s not enough fuel left in the ground to harvest for any useful purpose.

The methane gas coming out of the ground is still leaking out of the old Snake Hollow field, according to analysis by Fred Baldassare, owner of Echelon Applied Geochemistry Consulting in Murrysville, even though the field was commercially depleted by 1921.

Abandoned wells — there were about 180 drilled in Versailles around 1920 — served as conduits, offering a path of least resistance and bringing methane to the surface.

It’s possible that within a few months, the century-old hazard may finally be put to rest. Versailles is nearing the end of a project to mitigate gas migration in the hottest spots of the borough. Funded with a federal grant, the borough has dispatched Mr. Baldassare.

A town’s nuisance

The residents of Versailles are eager to stop airing the gas issue in public.

“You have to vent [the gas], so we vent it and move on,” Mr. Hackett said. It’s simply a fact of life.

The Hacketts grew up in Versailles. Several families near his childhood home ran pipes from their vent into their houses and cooked with the gas. Two others on the street had open flares in the yards for years. Once, about 40 years ago, Mr. Hackett said, his friend’s mother flipped a light switch and ignited the stray gas that had engulfed the walls of the house. She survived.

Methane is not a threat to the public in the air or in drinking water, but it is an explosion risk when confined in concentrations between 5 and 15 percent.

The people in Versailles grew up with the residue of the gas age. Despite sporadic attention from consultants, engineers, federal agencies and the media, they've resisted alarm.

The famous Snake Hollow field, also known at the McKeesport gas field, was tapped out by 1921, with the biggest rush during the first seven months of development.

“They depleted it within two years,” Versailles Mayor Jim Fleckenstein said, standing outside his home where three vents poke out of his backyard. “Now all that’s left is …”

“A headache,” Mrs. Hackett said.

“A nuisance,” Mr. Fleckenstein offered. “We’ve lived here all our lives. It’s not a concern for us. All it is now is a nuisance.”

The sight of the vents and their implications has deterred some homebuyers, he conceded, but for locals it’s the norm.

“The only problem is it’s not enough to sustain anything,” he said.

Mr. Baldassare isn’t as casual about the issue.

"There are some remediations there that have really kept me up at night,“ he said. "It’s serendipity that nothing bad has happened."

Boom and bust

The Hamilton No. 3 well, which kicked off the Snake Hollow field bubble in August 1919, produced more than 50 million cubic feet of gas a day for 100 days. That's more than twice the initial production of the best Marcellus Shale well drilled over the past decade. It was said to have cost less than $7,000 to drill the well.

Four months later, 116 companies had formed and proposed 230 well locations to capitalize on the site’s potential, according to a bulletin prepared by Pennsylvania's then-Department of Internal Affairs through its topographical and geological survey.

Landowners and developers bought and sold gas company stock on street corners, according to newspaper accounts.

“Much of the field was cut up into small town lots, and anyone could lease somebody's backyard and go into the gas business,” was the account conveyed in the Proceedings of the Fifteenth Annual Meeting of the Natural Gas Association of American in May 1920.

“McKeesport is a good example of needlessly close drilling.”

So frenzied was the enthusiasm for the backyard wells coming online that stockholders, landowners and neighbors began holding “gas baby” parties to christen new wells. Entire families gathered around derricks waiting to hit “pay dirt.” Several explosions leveled seven homes and injured hundreds of spectators during these parties, leading then-McKeesport Mayor George Lysle to ban the practice.

It is estimated that more than $30 million was sunk into developing the field and only $3 million in profits was realized.

By 1920, the geological survey warned drillers, “Investments now being made for future drilling are almost certain to result in partial, if not total, losses.” But the rush persisted and many wells came up dry.

“It’s still one milkshake no matter how many straws you put into it,” is how Kathy Flaherty, a local geologist and history buff, recently explained it.

Legacy gas

For the past three decades, Equitable Gas has shut off service to customers in Versailles at least once a year because of high methane readings, according to Barry Kukovich, a spokesman for Peoples Natural Gas, which acquired Equitable last year.

Versailles is one of several hot spots in the region, where old drilling and coal mining activity has caused stray gas to migrate and collect in pockets under people’s homes. Some of the other “bad areas” include Pleasant Hills, patches along McKnight Road and along the Route 30 corridor, Mr. Kukovich said.

The legacy of the historic gas boom is alive in Versailles — not just in the vents that pepper the small borough, but in the echoes of the new gas rush of the past decade.

The Speechley sand — a formation about 3,000 feet below the ground that spawned the 1919 gas extravaganza — has seen a bit of a revival in the past several years as companies like Penneco Oil Co. of Delmont now use horizontal drilling and fracking techniques popularized in deep shale exploration to break up the shallower sandstone.

Earlier this year, EQT Corp. proposed a seismic testing program that would send thumper trucks through the streets of Versailles. The Marcellus driller has since agreed to bypass the area after the borough explained its history of gas migration.

In 2003, the National Energy Technology Laboratory, a division of the U.S. Department of Energy, began researching the source of the stray gas in Versailles and preparing a mitigation strategy. In 2009, the agency helped Versailles secure a $368,600 grant that runs out this September. That’s the money paying for the newly installed power vents, home alarms and positive pressure systems that Mr. Baldassare is in the final phase of installing across the borough.

The borough and Gateway Engineers, a contractor on the project, sent letters to everyone in the hot spots offering monitoring and venting assistance. Many didn't respond and some wouldn't let engineers on their property, according to Gary Covatch, project manager with the national lab.

“They did put methane monitors in some of the people’s homes, but after awhile some people asked for them to be removed,” he said.

People were irked by the sensitivity of the monitors, which would go off at the slightest prompt. Mr. Fleckenstein said his wife’s hairspray also has set off the older alarms.

Scott Shank — who rents out his home a few doors down from the Fleckensteins — has vents, alarms and a newly installed system on his basement floor, all courtesy of the government grant.

Mr. Shank describes himself as a guinea pig for mitigation efforts. Anything that’s proposed and funded, he’s happy to have installed.

“A lot of people don’t cooperate,” he said. “They just don’t believe it or they’re tired of it after 25 years. My [stance] is, I have people that live there. I don’t want there to be any danger there at all.”

Anya Litvak: or 412-263-1455.

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