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Published: Tuesday, 3/15/2005

Tale of old oil well ends well as state caps site, vents gas

Tim Sanchez and crew work to secure the old well, one of about 500 in Ohio that will be sealed this year. Tim Sanchez and crew work to secure the old well, one of about 500 in Ohio that will be sealed this year.
KING / BLADE Enlarge

BOWLING GREEN - The old oil well was filled with cement and buried under a layer of asphalt, out of sight and out of mind - until residents of the Fuller Apartments began smelling petroleum fumes a few months ago.

Inspectors from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources determined gas was seeping from the ancient, eight-inch steel pipe and decided to dig up part of the parking lot at the apartment complex to fix the problem.

Yesterday, a construction crew installed a six-inch-thick concrete vault around the well's top to seal it off. Workers then ran 60 feet of PVC pipe from inside the vault to the edge of the parking lot, where a 12-foot-tall section of pipe was erected to let the gas vent harmlessly into the air, said Ken Piispanen, a mineral resources inspector for ODNR who covers northwest Ohio.

The department's Division of Mineral Resources Management plugs dozens of abandoned oil wells - many from a century ago or longer - each year as part of an emergency remediation program. Most are less involved than yesterday's excavation work in Bowling Green, Mr. Piispanen said.

"This is an unusual situation," he said as he watched workers laying pipe outside the apartments. "This is not a typical fix. I probably get calls for maybe half a dozen every month to go out and investigate these old wells."

The well outside the Fuller Apartments was plugged by the state once before, in January, 1991, according to ODNR records.

Mr. Piispanen said the crew that did that job was unable to remove all of the old tubing inside the well or get its entire depth of 1,130 feet filled with cement.

When gas began seeping from the site a few months ago, state inspectors feared fumes could become trapped under the asphalt and migrate into one of the nearby apartments, Mr. Piispanen said.

"This one is a problem, so we put it on our emergency list," he said. "Because of the potential for public safety issues, we got right on this one."

Statewide, about 500 wells are plugged each year, most of them by landowners themselves, said Mike McCormac, a geologist for the Division of Mineral Resources Management. The state steps in when an abandoned well poses an environmental or safety threat and an owner can't be located.

"When these come to our attention, we take care of them pretty quick," Mr. McCormac said. "But if one is sitting in a farmer's field and not doing any damage, it might be several years before we get to it."

In 2003, the idle and orphan well program plugged 72 wells, and the state has a backlog of about 300 wells waiting to be capped, he said.

A tax on Ohio producers of oil and natural gas produces about $800,000 a year for the remediation program, according to David Hodges, supervisor of ODNR's idle and orphan well and groundwater protection program.

Since Ohio's oil industry began in the 1860s, about 270,000 wells have been dug across the state, Mr. McCormac said. Of those, about 62,000 are in active use, and about 500 to 550 new wells are drilled statewide each year, according to state figures.

Tom Stewart, executive vice president of the Ohio Oil and Gas Association, said he expects 10 to 15 percent growth in the number of new wells this year, thanks to rising petroleum prices and a 2004 state law making it easier to drill for oil and natural gas in populated areas.

Some of those new wells are in northwest Ohio, but no one expects the region's oil industry to return to its heyday from the late 19th century to the early 20th century, when thousands of wells were drilled in Wood, Seneca, and Hancock counties.

John Newlove, who owns the Fuller complex, said he was pleased by the state's handling of the situation.

"It's fixed now, and the next generation or so won't even know anything happened there," he said.

Contact Steve Murphy at:


or 419-724-6078.

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