Archive for Thursday, January 17, 2002

Fiery Hutchinson explosions remain geologic puzzle despite investigation

January 17, 2002

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Nobody not even geologists thought this could happen.

When natural gas seeped through abandoned wells a year ago, causing two explosions that killed two people, it put Hutchinson residents on edge for months.

A Hutchinson firefighter watches from atop a ladder truck as a
natural gas leak burns inside a downtown Hutchinson building. Still
puzzled about the exact cause of the migration of underground
gasses that fueled the fires, Kansas University geologists have
applied for a $4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy
to study the issue. The Kansas Geological Survey, based at KU, has
spent $150,000 on the investigation since the fires of Jan. 17 and
18, 2001.

A Hutchinson firefighter watches from atop a ladder truck as a natural gas leak burns inside a downtown Hutchinson building. Still puzzled about the exact cause of the migration of underground gasses that fueled the fires, Kansas University geologists have applied for a $4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to study the issue. The Kansas Geological Survey, based at KU, has spent $150,000 on the investigation since the fires of Jan. 17 and 18, 2001.

Scientists from the Kansas Geological Survey, based at Kansas University, became detectives to determine what caused the unprecedented explosions.

"I don't think anybody had seen anything quite like this," said Rex Buchanan, the survey's associate director. "Even today, if you asked folks if we had a 100 percent understanding of what went on in this process, I'd say no. We're getting a handle on it, but it's taken a year to get here."

Lee Allison, director of the Kansas Geological Survey, updated the Hutchinson City Commission on the gas issue Tuesday.

A crew of eight survey scientists arrived in Hutchinson about two weeks after the first of two explosions destroyed a bridal and party store Jan. 17, 2001, in downtown Hutchinson. The next day, Jan. 18, a mobile home blew up, killing the couple who lived there.

The survey used seismic equipment to map the subsurface of a 4-mile stretch west of Hutchinson. The goal was to determine how gas traveled from the Yaggy storage facility 10 miles northwest of Hutchinson to the abandoned salt brine wells that allowed it to seep out.

With a path, the geologists suggested locations for placing venting wells that would burn the gas off before it reached the brine wells.

The geologists now believe a hole in a pipe at the storage facility allowed the gas to escape. It then traveled uphill through arch-like folds in the rock known as anticlines.

Buchanan estimates 143 million cubic feet of gas escaped enough to heat 1,700 houses for a year.

The question facing geologists now is how much gas still lies beneath Hutchinson. Buchanan said the city now is safe, saying all but three or four of the 57 vent wells drilled aren't producing any gas, and those that are have low levels of gas.

Buchanan said KU geologists have applied for a $4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to further study the issue.

He estimated the Kansas Geological Survey has spent $150,000 on the investigation so far, and it's still unclear who will pay the bill. The money may be included in the city of Hutchinson's settlement with Kansas Gas Service.

The Hutchinson City Council recently approved $63,244 for a Kansas Geological Survey study that would determine the feasibility of plugging the more than 100 salt brine wells left abandoned in Hutchinson.

Other issues also remain unresolved a year after the explosions. Several lawsuits are still pending against Kansas Gas Service, including one that may become a class-action suit on behalf of all Hutchinson residents.

Also, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment in the next month will release a draft of new regulations governing natural gas storage. Possible regulations include more inspections and more mechanical safeguards, including requiring two pipes leading to the storage facility one inside the other.

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