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Well fire ignites health concerns

Bobby Magill

RIFLE – Flames reportedly shot 200 feet above an EnCana natural gas well pad Monday night on Hunter Mesa after a fire broke out at a condensate tank and pit, causing concern among some area residents that the black smoke from the fire may have been toxic. Nearby Grass Mesa residents looked on as Rifle firefighters spent hours working to extinguish the blaze, the cause of which EnCana spokesman Doug Hock said is under investigation. “I had nightmares all night about it,” said Dry Hollow resident Beth Dardynski, who drove out to take pictures of the fire. The blaze was contained within the pad area after it started at about 5:25 p.m. on the Cedar Springs Ranch, Hock said. There were no injuries. The flow of gas to the well was shut off to prevent it from burning, he said. Rifle firefighter Matt Mollenkamp said the Rifle Fire Department spent about five hours working on the blaze. “Because there was no immediate life safety issues, we went ahead and let the tank burn itself out,” he said, adding that firefighters kept aiming water on the well heads. Once the fire died down, the crew used foam to finally douse the fire. Mollenkamp said EnCana will be in charge of investigating the cause of the fire. Meanwhile, area residents are concerned about the potential for more fires on nearby well pads and the health effects of the smoke from Monday’s fire. Hock said the smoke initially drifted skyward, but later in the evening, the black plume moved toward nearby residences. Grass Mesa resident Sara Wussow said there are “huge, nasty chemicals” in smoke from condensate tanks, adding that she wishes EnCana would be more forthright with information about the health hazards of condensate fires. Hock wouldn’t say what kind of health risk the smoke posed Monday or what particulate matter may have been in the smoke. He said those questions are best answered by Garfield County Environmental Health Manager Jim Rada.But Rada, who watched the fire burn Monday, said he doesn’t know what was in the smoke. “Obviously, there’s a substantial amount of particulates involved,” he said, adding that the county’s air quality monitoring program measures PM10 emissions – microscopic particles that can effect people with lung or heart disease and contribute to smog and haze.”There’s no way of knowing if the air in the Grass Mesa area is in exceedance of that,” he said. But, “the blackness of it (the smoke) would indicate that it’s heavy in carbon particulates.”Rada said he doesn’t know if anyone has ever analyzed what toxins condensate emits when it burns. Dardynski was also frustrated that she believes residents are being told too little about the health hazards wells and fires there pose to those who live nearby. “It wasn’t like they were burning off a pile of leaves, they’re burning off chemical substances that aren’t completely breaking down,” she said. “We don’t know what was actually in that condensate tank and that reserve pit that caught on fire. We’re all supposed to shut up and look in the other direction and forget it ever happened.”Grass Mesa resident Garland Anderson said he saw the smoke Monday night, but wasn’t aware of what was actually happening. “It appears to me, just from the experience we’ve had so far in our valley with the gas and oil people and the well pads and all this stuff, that the potential for a fire and explosion and injury … and damage to property is really escalated, and I think it’s going to escalate even more,” said Anderson, who lives on the eastern edge of Grass Mesa, not far from Hunter Mesa. He said he’s unsure if the area has enough hazardous materials experts to provide adequate protection from gas well fires and other accidents. “If they (gas companies) come in and create those kind of potential situations … they should be the first on line to provide hazmat protection and so forth,” Anderson said. “I don’t think they’ve done anywhere near enough. The burden is still on taxpayers to clean up their messes.”Vail, Colorado


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