Investigator Exclusive: Fewer gas drilling inspections raise safety fears

2:54 PM, Jun 30, 2010   |    comments
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It was Pipes' first problem at the well, but Channel 3 News found his company's been cited repeatedly for problems at other wells he owns.

Fifty-one times, in fact.

But all but 10 of those violations occurred prior to 2006.

It's a troubling trend we found happening statewide -- even as the state's allowed more than 1,000 wells to be drilled in urban areas during that time.

Violations issued by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, or ODNR, have dropped 58 percent, according to state figures.

In 2006, the state issued 1,440 violations, compared with 602 last year. The state's on pace to issue fewer than 350 this year.

Rick Simmers, who handles statewide enforcement of gas and oil wells for ODNR, said violations have fallen because there are too many wells and too few inspectors.

He said the state now prioritizes jobs, inspecting wells during the most potentially problematic times, and hoping they get it right.

"We don't get to cover everything we'd hope to cover," Simmers said. "But if you have a company that is not following the law, then, of course, the potential for some kind of incident or accident increases."

Yet when the state does go after violators, Channel 3 News found they have a hard time getting their man.

The state took Maverick Oil and Gas Inc., of Canton, to court in 2006 for failing to maintain four wells.  But as of this month, Maverick still hasn't removed any of the wells or paid a fine that now totals $185,000.

The man who owns the property where one of the wells is located is fed up by the state's response.

"They're not doing anything as far as I know," said Wayne Arnold. "Yeah, they gave him a fine, but what good's that? You know. If you aint' got any money, how you going to pay it?"

Jim McCartney, who's drilled more than 1,000 wells, said the state repeatedly missed violations on wells he drilled for one Northeast Ohio company, including a gas well located behind the Mentor City Garage.

"We hit that pocket of gas," McCartney said. "It unloaded the fluid that was supposed to be holding it down...along with natural gas, blowing it across the pit and into the air and into the neighborhood."

So McCartney called the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which fined the company more than $11,000 after a surprise inspection on the next well it drilled.

"They put their faith in that the ODNR is going to be out there and watching things and overseeing things," McCartney said. "In reality, that's a myth."

There's some good news in all this.

Because of a new law, the state will be able to hire some new inspectors.


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