Editorials , Columns

An emergency in Skiatook brought tribal, federal and local agencies together

Joseph Cheshewalla, Chair of the Osage Minerals Council Plugging Committee, was notified on June 30 that an old abandoned well was purging gas in a new housing development south of the Skiatook municipal airport.

The well had been drilled in 1925 and when abandoned it was plugged with mud. This was standard operative procedure in the early days, according to Cheshewalla. This was long before modern drilling and plugging methods were introduced, and long before 91 years of experience in the oil patch revealed the intricacies of underground pools, migrations and pressures. And it was long before there was a housing district in north Skiatook.  

To the majority of people living in suburbia, the smell of gas signals a broken or leaking pipe in/or leading to their homes. In this case the gas leak was signaled, not by smell, but by the killing of grass in an otherwise green and growing lawn.

Most folks are acutely aware of the dangers posed by gas gathering in their immediate environment. Flammability alone makes one walk cautiously, proceed with care and be wary of sparks, static electricity, and automobile ignitions. Stories of freak gas explosions, which are rare but real, come to mind. 

Residents of the Skiatook housing district were no different from most people facing the same or similar situation. Oklahoma Natural Gas, the Skiatook Fire Department and the State Corporation Committee were all notified and all came.

Skiatook Fire Chief Bob Noil called Bobby Tallchief, Osage Nation First Responders. According to Tallchief, he and Noil have a long history of working together and value one another’s judgment and knowledge. Noil asked for Tallchief’s assistance in assessing the situation and in determining jurisdictional boundaries and responsibilities.  

On site investigation revealed no breaks or leaks in ONG utility lines. Extensive digging provided direct visualization of their lines. Utility lines were pressure tested. At the bottom of one particularly deep dig, workers found seeping gas. It was in sufficient quantities to account for the curious grass kill which had been the original signal that something was wrong. 

According to Tallchief, ONG “went well above and beyond” that which was strictly required of them. The leakage that had been found was situated between two residential homes. Out of an abundance of caution, ONG relocated the two families to the Osage Casino Hotel in Skiatook. Tallchief said ONG also set a vent pipe and assigned a worker to monitor it hourly.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs Mineral Branch was notified that gas was escaping, and it was suspected the gas was coming from an abandoned oil/gas well. It was then that the Bureau apprised Cheshewalla of the possibilities, advising him to stand by until both an onsite investigation and a records search could be conducted. Mineral Branch efforts confirmed the well location and the presence of purging gas. Cheshewalla was apprised of the outcomes.

Cheshewalla said he was assured that BIA Mineral Branch policies and procedures were in play, and that “emergency plugging procedure paperwork was being processed” and that he should feel free to proceed. 

Cheshewalla was “contacted by Oklahoma Natural Gas asking to be released from responsibility and to let landowners return to their residences.” This he granted and sent a confirming email in that regard. 

Cheshewalla arranged for a plugging contractor to plug the well. Plugging was completed July 8. The BIA Mineral Branch will assess damages and devise a plan for restoration. The OMC Plugging Committee will review and act on the plan for location restoration. 

This was one of those, not too common times, when people came together, worked together, and together made things better. It took a village. The citizens who worked to help did so through the Skiatook Fire Department, the Osage Nation Emergency Responders, Oklahoma Natural Gas, Bureau of Indian Affairs Mineral Branch, State Cooperation Committee, Osage Nation Environmental and Natural Resource department and the Osage Mineral Council Plugging Committee.

Rosemary Wood is a former two-time Osage Tribal Councilwoman and graduated from St. John Hospital School of Nursing in 1963, the University of Oklahoma in 1965, and from Rutgers University in 1971 with a Master of Science in Psychiatric Nursing.