Top Stories

Abandoned oil wells hidden under thousands of local properties

PITTSBURGH — There's a hidden danger under thousands of properties in Pennsylvania: abandoned oil wells.

Officials with the Department of Environmental Protection said they know of at least 10,000 wells in Pennsylvania, but there are possibly more than 500,000 out there. Most of them stretch along western Pennsylvania, and the DEP said if left unplugged, they could prove to be a big danger.

In 2011, a series of explosions in the Bradford area of the state were linked to abandoned wells. One explosion destroyed a man's home.

If you want to receive BREAKING ALERTS, please download our WPXI News App. You can also follow WPXI on Facebook and Twitter

Channel 11 News anchor David Johnson headed out with the DEP to some local well sites to see how homeowners have had to respond to these surprising discoveries feet from their homes.

“It can start with a smell, it can start with a dead patch of grass,” Dan Counahan, of the DEP, said when talking about how some homeowners have discovered wells. “It can start with effervescing water.”

In Richland Township, one homeowner's discovery was a bit more unusual.

Charlie Brethauer was doing work in his backyard. He started digging near a tree on his property and immediately hit something odd in the earth.

PHOTOS: Abandoned oil wells blamed for explosions in Pennsylvania

“I had a shovel and I jammed it into the ground there,” Brethauer said. “The first time I did it, I cracked right through the top of the bucket. My mouth dropped open.”

That bucket was hiding an old and pretty active well. It was feet from the back of his house.

Brethauer reached out to the DEP, and with help from grants and Richland Township, it was able to cap the well.

For a second homeowner, the work still continues. She lives in Franklin Park and did not want to be identified.

The DEP showed Channel 11 News a brown patch in her front yard, where officials said they knew an oil well was hiding.

The previous homeowner wouldn't let them on the property for years to fix it. Now, they have started venting the area.

Plugging a well can take time and money. The DEP said depending on the particular well, estimates can range from $5,000 to $200,000.

LEARN MORE: DEP’s Orphan and Abandoned Well Plugging Program

Brethauer said his cost more than $125,000 to fix, money he never would have been readily able to come up with on his own.

The DEP said it is constantly learning new information about abandoned wells in our area.

“We know about a lot of these wells, but there's a lot we don't know about,” Counahan said.

One well is believed to exist underneath the parking lot of Ross Park Mall. It was discovered when a nearby duplex started noticing natural gas.

The DEP doesn't think the well is an imminent danger.

The DEP gets some money now to plug wells from a tax on new oil well permits, but it is not enough. Last year, the DEP spent more than $1 million plugging seven wells. Overall, the problem could cost the state close to $4 billion, so it is responding to the most critical cases first.

While the DEP said the work is slow-going because of financial and manpower constraints, it is important.

“Methane gas is a dangerous pollutant,” Counahan said. “When it gets into a confined space, it has the ability to cause an explosion.”