DOUGLAS — The cloud of natural gas looked like a dust storm, rolling in from the tall drilling rig northwest of her home near Douglas, Pat Miller thought.
Then the smell hit, an odor similar to fuel oil, said Jerry Miller, who was working alongside his wife in their backyard Tuesday afternoon.
That’s when they knew something was wrong at Chesapeake Energy Corp.’s natural gas well under the rig.
“We didn’t realize what it was until we smelled it,” Pat Miller said.
At her home just up the hill, Pat’s daughter-in-law Erin Miller smelled it too. She closed her doors and windows against the odor. A rushing sound of gas escaping the earth filled the air.
Several hours later in the dark she watched as vehicle lights met at the entrance to the small country subdivision, then split as Converse County sheriff’s deputies drove to nearby residents and suggested they leave the area — even though air quality monitoring hadn’t indicated any danger.
Fifty residents near the well decided to leave. They were put up in Douglas and Casper hotels at Chesapeake’s expense. Seventeen others, including both Miller households, decided to stay.
“I just said, ‘I’m not leaving ‘til they make you leave,’” Erin Miller said.
The Chesapeake Energy Corp. well about seven miles northeast of Douglas had blown out while the operator was installing a protective steel casing into the well during the drilling process. It belched natural gas into the air and spewed oil-based drilling mud at the site.
Chesapeake was quick to report that nobody got hurt in the blowout. But what happened wasn’t yet clear.
As darkness fell, Chesapeake crews and contractors raced to the site, working with a state oil and gas field inspector and county emergency responders to assess the situation.
By midnight, a crack well-control outfit from Houston named Boots & Coots was at the site, said state Oil and Gas Supervisor Tom Doll.
The escaping gas continued to vent through the night. A whooshing noise, said nearby residents. Unlike other nights, the Trinidad Drilling rig was dark as the explosive gas continued to shoot into the air.
On Wednesday, Oklahoma City-based Chesapeake and its contractors continued to monitor the air quality around the site, brought in more equipment and prepped a plan to control the well known as Combs Ranch Unit 29-33-70 1H.
“I’m confident they’ll be able to get the well under control,” Doll said. “But we haven’t really had the opportunity to discuss the timing and I’d hate to speculate on that.”
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said an inspector was heading to the site and an agency spokeswoman told the Reuters news agency the EPA had gotten reports of an oil sheen on an irrigation channel and pond near the well.
Chesapeake said the drilling mud from the well was “largely being contained” at the site, where the company was drilling into the Niobrara Shale formation, and the gas was dissipating into the air.
“Steps are being taken to mitigate any localized environmental impact,” company spokeswoman Kelsey Campbell said.
The Millers continued to keep an eye on the rig while they worked on a backyard fence. The wind pushed the venting gas their way, drifting across the dry grass and scrub.
The power went out not long after 11 a.m., then came back on less that three hours later.
Twenty-four hours after the well blew, Chesapeake announced it and its contracted specialists would take the first step to control the well this morning.
Residents who chose to evacuate got another night at area hotels on Chesapeake’s dime, while their neighbors who stayed home spent another night waiting for the company to tame the well.