Energy company encountering hydrogen sulfide in Piceance wells

Noble Energy on Wednesday said it is encountering hydrogen sulfide in the majority of its Piceance Basin natural gas wells, after a former contractor employee said he became ill from the substance while working on a Noble site.

That same man, Silt Mesa resident Carl Mc Williams, helped bring to light a concern about dust clouds of hydraulic fracturing sand emanating from a Williams well pad near Parachute’s town offices Tuesday. Mc Williams said frac sand consists of silica and is more dangerous than asbestos to inhale.

“This was a very unusual event, and we’re going to seriously investigate what happened,” Williams spokeswoman Susan Alvillar said.

Mc Williams came forward with his concerns in e-mails to reporters, area residents and public officials this week.

Hydrogen sulfide can be lethal at high enough levels and can cause headaches and other health problems at lower concentrations. A community-based air-quality-monitoring program reportedly found a high hydrogen sulfide level in January at the Silt Mesa home of Bill and Beth Strudley, near an Antero Resources well. The Strudleys moved out of the house after saying their family became ill, and they are suing Antero.

The high reading met with some skepticism, including from state health officials who say Piceance Basin gas isn’t known for having much hydrogen sulfide.

However, Mc Williams said he suffered from double vision and went on worker’s compensation for three months after inhaling hydrogen sulfide at a Noble Energy well south of Parachute in 2009.

A co-worker of Mc Williams on the well site that day died a day later, and Mc Williams said he always has suspected a hydrogen sulfide link. However, Noble spokesman Stephen Flaherty said the cause of death was ruled a heart attack, which isn’t something hydrogen sulfide causes.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited Mc Williams’ then-employer, Lonkar Services (USA) Ltd., doing business as Lightning Wireline, including for not following respiratory protection rules. OSHA fined Lonkar Services $2,000.

Since that first detection in 2009, Noble has been regularly encountering hydrogen sulfide at generally minor levels, Flaherty said. Even before then, workers received safety training about it. Noble uses biocides and other methods to eliminate it, he said.

“It’s a concern, but it’s not one that we’re inexperienced in dealing with,” he said.

David Neslin, director of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, said his agency is looking into the Noble situation. His agency believes hydrogen sulfide is relatively rare in the Piceance Basin except for the Noble wells, and it may have been introduced into gas fields Noble drills, possibly by a company not using biocides in wells it drilled.

Meanwhile, in response to a Mc Williams e-mail expressing general concern about workers inhaling frac sand at well pads, Battlement Mesa resident Bob Arrington reported seeing clouds of dust Tuesday at the Williams pad site, and workers not wearing respirators, as frac sand was being unloaded.

Alvillar said Williams specifies the type of equipment to be used by contractors in such operations, and she was told it was in use.

Halliburton is the company involved in the operation.

“Halliburton is investigating this alleged incident. Halliburton’s top priority is the safety of its employees,” said Tara Mullee, a Halliburton spokeswoman.

Alvillar said she understands photos or video of the dust clouds may exist, and it would help Williams’ investigation if the company could see them. She may be reached at 970-216-3878.


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