Our last "gold rush" for mineral wealth occured in Pithole, Pennsylvania in 1866, about 44 miles southwest of Warren, PA, in Cornplanter Township near Pleasantville. After Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, it had the busiest Post Office in the state. The town of 15,000 sprang up overnight until "the Grant Well caught fire. The flames spread, and all the splendor and riches of the famous Pithole City were swept away in a night, " according to the December 26, 1879 edition of the New York Times. Pithole is now on the National Register of Historic Places, being probably the most famous ghost town in the state.
There was so much oil it stimulated the invention of the railroad oil tanker. The most famous resident of Pithole City was John Wilkes Booth.
Photo of Holmden Street, Pithole City, PA is in the public domain.
Safety is No Accident
As people from all over the world come to our mineral-rich area which has been dubbed "the Saudi Arabia of Natural Gas" we wish them luck and good fortune as they ply their trade in the Marcellus Shale natural gas field. Recent national and local events, however, suggest that good luck is not guaranteed. Profits may seem a sure thing but it is important to ask the question, at what cost to human life and the environment?
Yesterday, three people lost their lives when a natural gas pipeline exploded in Texas. Last week, a mile-deep natural gas well outside of Pittsburgh blew, without an explosion thankfully and it apparently is now under control, although an evacuation of the area was ordered and aircraft were warned not to fly over the area on a temporary basis. No one was hurt, but it is a big deal when civil authorities must take charge to ensure safety to the general public. The death of 11 rig workers last April on the Deep Water Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico will never be forgotten. Two months later, oil is still spewing into the ocean as a result of the explosion there (we are keeping our fingers crossed that this is improving) but the gulf states right now need this economic and environmental disaster about as much as the Midwest needed the Dustbowl during the Great Depression.
We learned something scientific from the Dustbowl. Be careful when you exploit Mother Nature. The thin topsoil of the southern midwest states could not tolerate unscientific agricultural practices. We learned to plant different crops in different ways, to ensure that soil-holding trees were plentiful, so that the devastation that starved and killed thousands of Americans will not happen again.
A lack of safety means peoples' lives and livelihoods can be lost. As a medical student I learned that the safety of any treatment should be paramount for every patient. Risks must be defined and studied and individualized for each situation. And most importantly, before any treatment is given, the physician must be able to answer the question, what do we do if something goes wrong?
Few physicians would be able to keep their licenses if they used the excuse, "it was an accident." Certainly they would not keep their patients.
That's because we hold our doctors to the highest standard because lives are at stake as well as the lives of the families of patients.
The comparison of professional doctors to professional mineral extractors may be a thin one, but recent events suggest that accidents in this vital industry are more than just anecdotal. If you work in this business long enough, whether it is in drilling, refining, or transporting, chances are you will see one. People get killed or the environment takes a beating, and that means we all pay for it.
Not all accidents can be avoided, by definition. But they can be reduced as seen recently in the decrease of automobile fatalities with the enforcement of seat belt laws. Perhaps we can do better when it comes to making money on Mother Nature. This may mean private industry might hire a few more professionals in the areas of science covered by the disciplines of Environmental Studies, Wildlife Biology, Mechanical Engineering, and even Sociology to study why things go wrong on the oil field and in the corporate board room.
But that is only half the equation. We all want to reduce accidents. But are we prepared if things do go wrong? Do we know what to do if there is an emergency? Do we know how to resolve a dangerous situation and how to prevent it from becoming a long-term problem? These are questions any medical student needs to answer before he can earn a diploma. Those involved in billion-dollar extractions of minerals could profit from their example.
Recent events have shown that mineral extraction can be dangerous, not just to the people who work in the field, but to the environment and long-term well-being of communities as well. This is not news to anybody.
Improving the safety of mineral extraction, foreseeing remote and unlikely events and knowing what to do about it, how to do it, and having the proper equipment and expertise to do it is just as important as extracting the minerals in the first place.
Safety for workers, communities, and the environment should not be left to chance no matter how remote the probability of an adverse event because of the potential severity of an unexpected outcome.
We need higher professional standards for mineral extraction. If drillers have not planned for unforeseen adverse events, they are not done planning. When you are reaching a mile below the earth's surface, anything can happen.
Doctors go through a similar alogorithm every day. Multi-billion dollar corporations can do it too.
It's time mineral extractors beefed up their professionalism. The public can tolerate only so many accidents.
See also, an Associated Press report that shows the BP spill response plan was filled with factual errors.