VICKI SMITH

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) â¿¿ A crew drilling a natural gas well through an abandoned coal mine in West Virginia's Northern Panhandle hit a pocket of methane gas that ignited, triggering an explosion that burned seven workers, state and company officials said Monday.

The seven workers were taken to West Penn Burn Center in Pittsburgh. Two were released by the end of the day and the others were walking around the hospital and talking with their families.

The explosion happened about 1:30 a.m. in a rural area outside Moundsville, about 55 miles southwest of Pittsburgh. A column of fire shot at least 70 feet high, but the flames fell to 40 feet within hours.

The gas will continue to burn off for two to three days, said Kristi Gittins, spokeswoman for Dallas,Texas-based Chief Oil & Gas LLC.

As it does, a team from Texas-based Wild Well Control, a company that specializes in rig fires, is moving out damaged equipment. Once those workers can safely reach the well, they will cap it, Gittins said.

The fire presents no danger to any structures or people, said Bill Hendershot, an inspector with the state Department of Environmental Protection's Office of Oil and Gas.

The operation was less than a week old when the blast occurred: DEP records show a permit was issued June 2 to AB Resources PA LLC of Brecksville, Ohio.

Gittins said AB Resources is the operator of the well, while Chief has a "participation interest." It is Chief's responsibility to drill and complete the well, she said.

Chief's site contractor, Union Drilling of Buckhannon, had drilled the first 1,000 feet of a second well on the property and was preparing to install surface casing when crews apparently hit and ignited the methane, she said.

Crews had drilled through the abandoned Consol Energy mine before without incident, she said.

Methane is a known risk when working near old mines, and the company typically takes a variety of precautions, including venting systems. Gittins could not immediately say what precautions were in place at this site.

Prentice Cline, assistant area director for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in Charleston, said blowout preventers are typically required on gas rigs.

But DEP spokeswoman Kathy Cosco said the Union rig didn't have one because it hadn't yet reached a depth where a blowout preventer is required. When the accident occurred, it was still drilling a hole through rock, not pumping gas.

Five of the injured workers were employed by Union and two worked for BJ Services Co. of Houston, Texas.

Union issued a statement saying it was "deeply concerned" about the explosion and the treatment of the injured. The company said it is cooperating with all investigators.

The well site was on the vast Marcellus shale fields, a gas reserve about the size of Greece that lies more than a mile beneath New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio.

OSHA created a program to deal with gas drilling in the Marcellus fields about five years ago and has been proactively inspecting sites to ensure compliance with safety regulations, area director Jeff Funke said.

Gittins, the spokeswoman for Chief, said her company has drilled about 75 Marcellus wells in West Virginia and Pennsylvania so far, with about 15 of them in West Virginia.

This was the company's first major accident, she said.

However, it's the latest in a string of accidents related to the rapidly growing pursuit of Marcellus gas.

In Pennsylvania, environmental regulators are investigating what caused another well to spew explosive gas and polluted water for about 16 hours last week until it was brought under control. That company, EOG Resources Inc., has been barred from drilling until an investigation is complete and necessary changes made.

Later on Monday, one person was killed and several others missing after a natural gas line in north Texas erupted, spewing a massive flames into the air. City officials said workers apparently hit the gas line near Cleburne, located about 50 miles south of Dallas, while working on a communications line.

___

Online:

Union Drilling: http://udrl.client.shareholder.com/

Chief Oil & Gas: http://www.chiefog.com/marcellus_shale.html

AB Resources: http://www.abresourcesllc.com/

Copyright 2010 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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