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The Amazing Coudersport Ice Mine

The Amazing Coudersport Ice Mine

Thursday, October 11, 2012

State Impact--Laurie Barr---Hunting For Hidden Wells

If you want to find evi­dence of Pennsylvania’s long his­tory of oil and gas drilling, a good place to start is in Lau­rie Barr’s back yard. Behind Barr’s house, a few rusty pipes stick out of the ground, aban­doned entry points to wells drilled long ago. 

Until recently, Barr had no inkling that aban­doned wells could be dan­ger­ous. She dec­o­rated one of the pipes in her back­yard with a bird feeder. Then Barr heard about a how a house in Brad­ford, McK­ean County, blew up.   State reg­u­la­tors cen­tered their inves­ti­ga­tion of the 2011 inci­dent on gas from an aban­doned well, drilled in 1881, located about 300 feet from the home.

“I thought, whoa, what the f—?” Barr recalls. “Can you imag­ine step­ping out to shovel snow, and your whole house goes poof?”
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Part 1: Why aban­doned wells are a problem
Info­graphic: How aban­doned wells can con­tribute to methane migration
Part 2: How many wells dot Penn­syl­va­nia, and why aren’t we plug­ging more of them?
Map: Known aban­doned wells in Pennsylvania
Part 3: How to track down an aban­doned well
Part 4: States don’t do much to reg­u­late drilling near aban­doned well.
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Ever since, Barr has made hunt­ing down aban­doned wells her life’s call­ing. She read every study about aban­doned wells that she could get her hands on. She began study­ing old prop­erty records and hik­ing through woods to find aban­doned wells. Ear­lier this year, she launched an online “scav­enger hunt,” encour­ag­ing oth­ers to look for wells, and pass along their loca­tions and information.

The state Depart­ment of Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion can use the help. Across north­ern and west­ern Penn­syl­va­nia, an esti­mated 200,000 aban­doned wells are unac­counted for. The  under­funded state pro­gram in charge of find­ing and plug­ging those wells has iden­ti­fied only 8,255 of them.

The infor­ma­tion gap is a prob­lem, because aban­doned wells are dangerous.

Aban­doned wells pro­vide path­ways for methane gas to seep to the sur­face, where it can, under the right set­tings, trig­ger explo­sions. That’s what hap­pened in Brad­ford. So home­own­ers in areas where a lot of wells have been drilled  have a com­pelling rea­son to know whether aban­doned wells are located nearby.

The energy indus­try has a com­pelling rea­son, too, with all the new drilling going on in Penn­syl­va­nia. Active drilling oper­a­tions don’t often cross paths with an old well, but when they do the results can be dra­matic. In Tioga County this sum­mer, a well Shell was drilling is believed to have inter­acted with an aban­doned well drilled in 1932, pro­duc­ing a 30-foot geyser of gas and water that sprayed out of the ground for more than a week.

Yet the where­abouts of the vast major­ity of these old wells remains a mys­tery. Time has marched on in the decades since the wells were first drilled. Trees and brush have cov­ered their holes. Scrap col­lec­tors have pried metal cas­ing — often the most obvi­ous sign of a well’s pres­ence — out of the ground. And towns and cities have been built on top of them. Read more..

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