LITTLETON - A landslide apparently damaged a MarkWest Energy pipeline in northern Wetzel County this week, causing it to rupture and spill an unidentified, but potentially explosive, liquid.
Kathy Cosco, spokeswoman for the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, confirmed the spill Friday. But DEP officials have not yet been able to closely examine the Rocky Run area where the liquid was released.
"Yes, we are aware of that incident, but we haven't been able to get a whole lot of samples," Cosco said. "We can't get close enough yet. ... As of (Friday) morning, the gas levels in the immediate area were too high for our folks be able to ... take samples of stream."
As a result, Cosco said, DEP officials won't know what substances may have contaminated the stream for some time. She said reports indicate the spill involves "wet gas" or a "liquid gas" and that many natural gas liquids - byproducts of natural gas drilling such as propane, ethane, butane and others - vaporize when their liquid forms come in contact with water.
"The company put out some absorbent material in the nearby stream, trying to absorb anything that might be on the surface," Cosco added, noting MarkWest has been communicating with the DEP. "Their efforts have been to get control of the situation, shutting things off manually and cleaning out the line."
Cosco said it appears a landslide crimped the pipeline, which then ruptured. She also said evidence of a fish kill has been found in Rocky Run, a tributary of Marshall County's Fish Creek.
Officials with the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources did not immediately return calls and emails seeking comment on how the spill has impacted wildlife in the area. MarkWest officials also could not be reached for comment.
NGLs may be heavier than air and could linger in valleys and low-lying areas, Marshall County Emergency Management Director Tom Hart acknowledged. He was notified by the DEP late Wednesday that an 8-inch line had ruptured Tuesday. As a precaution, he and Cameron Fire Chief Brian Marling checked the Bannen area of Amos Hollow along W.Va. 89 in Marshall County near the Wetzel County line - an area Hart said is at a lower elevation than the approximate area of the break. They found no evidence of contamination or hazards.
Cosco said she does not believe any residents live close enough to the site to be in danger, and she stressed people should avoid the area of the spill. She said Wetzel County 911 was notified of the accident.
"If there was any threat to nearby residents, I imagine local authorities would have alerted them ... ," she said. "There is gas in that area. Residents need to be aware and avoid that site for their own safety."
She did not know whether signs or other warnings had been posted to keep people from approaching the site.
Cosco said DEP representatives have been "able to get within eyesight" of the spill without being in danger. However, she said all such substances are volatile and always have the potential to ignite. She said MarkWest workers have been maintaining the site and managing the spill in an effort to prevent any ignition or explosion.
"They do have air monitors set up at the site," she continued, noting it would be dangerous for people to inhale such a gas.
Residents of the area expressed concern about potential hazards associated with the pipeline break. According to Bill Hughes of Wetzel County, residents nearby said they had been smelling gas that they believed to be propane since Aug. 10.
Ed Wade, who lives about a mile from the spill, said he talked to a neighbor who noticed the problem early Aug. 10. Wade visited the area of the spill and encountered "really, really strong fumes." He said he saw one "roll-out ribbon" nearby that states "Danger," but he did not believe this was an adequate warning.
"There should have been a person posted at any of the points of entry to the area," Wade said. "There are local ATV trails through there, and any source of ignition is bad."
Cosco said once the danger has passed and DEP workers can access the area, they will sample the stream and soil. Not only will MarkWest need to control the situation, but company officials have been told they need to look at a remediation plan for the future, she said.
It is possible the company will be fined or cited for the incident, Cosco said, but the DEP won't make any determinations regarding the cause of the spill until officials get more information.
"We need to get closer to the actual site and see what might have caused the slip," she said. "I'm sure the rainy season played a part, but were there other conditions that may have led to that happening?"
Cosco said additional information on the incident may be available Monday.