KEENE, N.D. — An oil well fire bordering Lake Sakakawea in McKenzie County burned into its 12th day on Monday, Aug. 2, with emergency responders continuing to fight intense flames and temperatures in order to get three ruptured wells under control.
Smoke has been visible from miles away since the fire began on Thursday, July 22, and state officials, local emergency responders and the company operating the wells said they have few updates to report on the status of the fire since the end of last week.
The fire is burning in three of four oil wells on a well pad north of Keene and a half-mile south of the lake. The wells are operated by the Texas-based producer Petro-Hunt. Last week, North Dakota Oil and Gas Director Lynn Helms attributed the fires to the failure of a blowout preventer, a crucial mechanical valve used to stop the uncontrolled release of oil.
Lucas Graf, a district ranger with the U.S. Forest Service in McKenzie County, said Petro-Hunt and responders are hoping to have the well pad under control and the fire extinguished “in the next couple of days” or by the end of this week, depending on weather conditions and other factors at the well site. Responders over the weekend made an unsuccessful attempt to plug the first blown-out well, Graf said, and are expecting to make a second attempt in the next couple of days.
In an email, Petro-Hunt spokesperson Beth Babb said, “the situation is dynamic and completely dependent on well and weather conditions.” She added, “We are still focusing all of our attention on getting the fire extinguished, along with our well control contractor.”
Last week Petro-Hunt brought in the oilfield emergency response company Wild Well Control, also based in Texas, for on-site assistance. Several local and state departments have also sent responders to the scene in the last week.
Regaining control of a blown-out oil well can be extremely challenging and depends on access to the well pad, where temperatures in this case remain dangerously hot. Graf said that responders have had to wait out the blazes for the right weather and fire conditions needed to make their approach.
As of Monday afternoon, Wild Well Control was still moving burnt equipment out of the way to establish a clear path to the wells, Department of Mineral Resources spokesperson Katie Haarsager said in an email. Graf said that responders have successfully killed the fourth well on the site to avert another blowout preventer failure, and have constructed a barrier blocking the three burning wells from the fourth.
Graf added that Petro-Hunt has reported to the Forest Service that one of the three wells has blown-out more severely than the others, making that one the highest priority to plug.
“It's still a highly technical and difficult process, of course, to regain control of the other two, but I think it's really the first one that will be the biggest challenge,” he said.
Initial reports from Petro-Hunt to the state said 100 barrels of oil and 100 barrels of produced water spilled at the site. Dave Glatt, Director of the Department of Environmental Quality, said he’s taking those figures with a grain of salt for now, since it’s difficult to know the extent of the spill until the fire is extinguished. Officials believe that all of the spill was contained to the well pad.
Glatt noted that air quality readings by the department have not shown significant changes due to the fire, but he encouraged people to steer clear of the area and avoid places down-wind of the site.
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