Accidents Bring Calls to Suspend Shale Drilling

In reaction to a well blowout near Penfield, Penn., the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection ordered EOG Resources Inc. to suspend all new drilling operations in the state for seven days until an independent investigation of the incident is performed. EOG was also ordered to suspend fracking activities for 14 days and post-fracking operations for 30 days throughout the state.

The incident involved a natural gas well in which EOG's operators lost control after cracking the Marcellus Formation a mile underground to release the gas. The well's blowout preventer failed to act, and high pressure forced the gas and frack fluid containing toxic chemicals out of the well. (Fracking is a process whereby water, sand and chemicals are blasted underground to shatter tightly compacted shale to release trapped natural gas deposits.) As much as 1 million gallons was sprayed into the air for 16 hours.

In a related incident, a drilling rig explosion at a Marcellus shale natural gas drilling operation in West Virginia that burned and injured seven drilling workers has led to calls for increased federal regulations and even a moratorium on drilling. Advocates including Rep. Joe Seatak are arguing for more stringent controls and have labelled the incidents public health hazards, especially in areas where drilling occurs near population centers and water supplies.

Opponents of increased regulations have pointed out that these incidents were the first to have occurred in the Marcellus Formation and that such accidents are extremely rare. They also maintain that existing regulations are adequate and only need to be enforced. Furthermore, a drilling moratorium would only drive up prices and harm property owners who reap the benefits from leasing gas drilling rights.

The Pennsylvania drillers might have been exposed to the toxic chemicals from the frack fluid. Although they may not have experienced the burns or other visible injuries that the West Virginia drilling workers suffered, any symptoms from exposure to toxic chemicals may not manifest themselves for years. These workers and others who are exposed to fracking should carefully monitor their health and document any unusual symptoms that may arise, as injuries related to shale drilling could give rise to personal injury and workers' compensation claims.

The lessons from asbestos exposure and the years of litigation that ensued should serve as a reminder to workers in hazardous occupations to take all measures to preserve their health and their rights.