NYSDEC still probing possible cause of house explosion in oil & gas drilling country

Cattaraugus County

ALLEGANY, NY (WIVB) — It has been a year and a half since a home exploded in the heart of New York’s southern tier oil and gas drilling region. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation is still investigating whether or not hydraulic fracking had any role in the cause of the explosion. Through a Freedom of Information request, News Four is learning more about certain elements of the investigation.

Shortly after 9am on November 18, 2019, the Volz family home on West Branch Road in the Cattaraugus County Town of Allegany exploded. No one was home except the family dog which survived by crawling out of a displaced section of the home.

“I looked over and I saw him blink and I was just like, there’s no way,” said Brad Volz on that morning. “We took off running and crying and just couldn’t wrap our heads around it.”

The initial conclusion by The Cattaraugus County Fire Investigation team determined that combustible ground gas entered the basement of the house through a water well. built up to explosive levels and was ignited.

“In 36 years, 8 months and 8 days, we never had a problem with the wells,” said the homeowner Ronald Volz. “It’s devastating, it really is, but we thank the Good Lord that nobody was there, the dog was fine so we’re gonna move on.”

Since the explosion, the DEC tested 15 water wells in this area and found detectable levels of combustible gas in Ron’s well and two of his neighbors’. The Volz home is surrounded by oil and gas wells, and has been for decades. Although fracking is not allowed to the extent which it is in Pennsylvania, a lower volume of hydrofracking is allowed here in NY.

On the week the explosion happened, the only two oil wells that were actively being drilled in all of Western New York just happened to be within two miles of Ron’s house. In fact, the morning that it exploded, just an hour and twenty minutes before it exploded, a brand new Dimes Energy oil well was being hydraulically fracked for the first time, about a mile up the hill.

“We did have operations that were going that were about a half mile away from where this occurred,” acknowledges Eric Firkel, an attorney representing Dimes Energy. “We had a halt on operations for several month after that. The DEC looked into it. We worked with the DEC to do what we could to find out if there was any causal relation and I mean to date, there’s been absolutely no evidence that our operation had anything to do with that explosion down there.”

Dimes Energy operates about 200 oil wells and storage facilities in Cattaraugus County. In the months following the explosion, the DEC did a series of inspections on Dimes operations and revealed 160 violations from leaking oil wells to inadequately identifying its wells. Dimes was fined $79,000 but has since addressed all of the remedial measures and has been allowed to resume all operations.

“Today we have a very safe oil and gas industry,” said Firkel. “This is an extraordinarily rare thing that happened. There was like a perfect storm of a water well that was not up to code.”

The attorney for Dimes Energy believes it was caused by an old well near the home that was not vented to the atmosphere, and was not a Dimes Energy property. “We certainly want to find out the cause of this and get to the bottom of it to have the safest operation possible here in Western New York.”

But Ron Volz can’t help but think that something underground has changed around his home. “The most important thing is to get something done. We met with all the politicians, all of them, and we had no help whatsoever. But the main reason is my neighbors. If I don’t say nothin’ or push the issue, it could happen again. I mean Good Lord forbid somebody get killed, and in this neighborhood we’re all family.”

Ron has his own environmental attorney representing him and he says he has had good communication with the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation which continues to investigate.

“I’m kind of hesitant now if we rebuild, and all of a sudden if they come in and they start doing the back hill with wells, you know we’re scared.” said Volz. “We’re just petrified we don’t want to do it. “What good is the money you know. It doesn’t replace what you lost. You know it’s like you lost everything that you live for . It’s tough. It’s hard.”

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has indicated when a final conclusion will be reached in the investigation.

George Richert is an award-winning reporter who first joined the News 4 team in 1998, later returning in 2018. See more of his work here.

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