Explosion investigations continue

State and federal investigations continued Wednesday into last week’s explosion at the Belpre area Enviro-Tank Clean, Inc., plant as well as a massive fire that occurred at a Statoil Eisenbarth natural gas well site near Hannibal Saturday.

Deborah Zubaty, area director for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in Columbus, said the agency is looking into both incidents.

“We have people at both locations,” she said. “At Enviro-Tank we’re continuing our investigation which is only in the beginning stages. We’re interviewing management and employees at this time.”

Zubaty said there is currently no timeframe for completion of the investigation, which can take up to six months, although she does not expect the Enviro-Tank investigation to be nearly that long.

Three people were injured in the Enviro-Tank explosion.

Kevin S. McClain, age 32, Ravenswood, W.Va., suffered severe burns and was airlifted from the Camden Clark campus to Cabell Huntington Burn Center following the explosion. He remained in the hospital burn unit Wednesday where hospital officials listed McClain in stable but critical condition.

He is an employee of BBU Services of West Virginia, a Kenna-based environmental construction contractor.

Justin A. Flesher, 33, and Fred E. Johnston, 53, both Enviro-Tank employees from Belpre, were treated for less critical burns and released from area hospitals the day of the explosion.

The explosion occurred around 8:50 a.m. on June 24 as a mixture of fuel and water was being transferred from a truck to a storage tank at the Enviro-Tank facility. The Ohio State Fire Marshal’s Office has said the explosion was caused by the ignition of excessive gasoline vapor in the storage tank area.

“We closed our investigation there last week, and it was ruled an accidental incident,” said Lindsey Burnworth, information officer for the fire marshal’s office.

She said as of Wednesday the fire marshal’s office had not been contacted about an investigation of Saturday’s fire at the Statoil site near Hannibal.

“We have no one there now, and do not know if our office will be needed there or not,” Burnworth said.

But Zubaty said OSHA would be involved at the natural gas well site.

“We’ll investigate the Monroe County incident. We had people out there yesterday, but the site had not yet been cleared for investigation,” she said. “Right now we’re trying to find out what happened. I understand there may have been some environmental damage.”

A spokesperson for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, which regulates shale oil and gas drilling in the state, said the Statoil fire was apparently caused by a surface hose that malfunctioned during a hydraulic fracturing job. The malfunction caused a truck to catch fire and the blaze eventually spread to 20 trucks at the site.

ODNR spokeswoman Bethany McCorkle told the Martins Ferry Times Leader that state regulators are investigating whether the Statoil fire contributed to a fish kill in Opossum Creek which is located near the well site. Hundreds of dead fish have reportedly been found in the creek.

No one was injured during Saturday’s fire, but residents of more than 20 homes in the area were encouraged to evacuate as a precaution.

Monroe County Sheriff Charles Black was out of state at the time of the fire, but received a full briefing on the incident when he returned.

“That could have turned tragic pretty quickly. We advised area residents to evacuate, but from what I understand the first responders were most at risk,” he said Wednesday, noting chemicals reportedly stored at the site could have caused major injury to those closest to the fire.

“We’re lucky no one got killed,” Black said. “I think a lot of people panicked, and there should have been a better contingency plan in place.”

The sheriff said for the last three months he’s encouraged monthly meetings with oil and gas industry representatives, the county commissioners, and county emergency management personnel to work out a contingency plan. He hopes Saturday’s incident would help the community see the importance of developing a plan for such emergencies.

Black noted the fire was above ground and did not occur in the gas well itself.

“If it had been a well fire, it would have required a very specialized crew to come in and put it out,” he said, adding that there are only a few such groups throughout the U.S.

State Senator Lou Gentile sent a letter to ODNR Tuesday, asking that the agency keep his office informed as the investigation of the Statoil fire progresses.

“We don’t have all the details at this point, it’s still under investigation. But my purpose for the letter is to make sure investigators keep in contact with my office so we can keep our constituents informed,” he said. “We’re not pointing fingers at anyone in this situation, but we want to make sure ODNR and other agencies involved are doing whatever they can to prevent something like this from happening again in the future.”