Pawhuska schools to reopen Monday

Nathan Thompson, Journal-Capital
Residents fill the Pawhuska Community Center to capacity Monday evening for a town hall meeting on the natural gas leaks located at Pawhuska Public Schools. The gas purge kept Pawhuska students from starting school last week. Classes remain closed for an unknown amount of time for a solution to be implemented.

UPDATE: Pawhuska Public Schools will reopen and classes will begin on Monday, Aug. 28, after the Oklahoma State Fire Marshal reviewed air quality monitoring from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Superintendent Janet Neufeld said Wednesday. The results show no hazardous air quality conditions at any Pawhuska school facility. The original story published in Wednesday's Pawhuska Journal-Capital appears below.

Pawhuska public schools will remain closed for an unknown length of time after Gov. Mary Fallin declared a state of emergency Monday for Pawhuska and local, state, tribal and federal officials work on a solution to a natural gas purge just outside the doors of Pawhuska High School.

Concerned parents, residents and patrons of Pawhuska schools crowded into the Pawhuska Community Center Monday evening for a town hall meeting about the leaking methane coming from geothermal wells on the campus of Pawhuska Public Schools. The problem has delayed the start of school, which was scheduled to begin Aug. 17.

According to officials from the Oklahoma Water Resources Board, 28 geothermal wells were drilled on the campus in 2012 to help provide natural heating for Pawhuska Public Schools. Two of the wells are seeping natural gas from an unknown source.

Pawhuska Superintendent of Schools Dr. Janet Neufeld said the seepage was discovered over the summer.

“We were on a tour with school board members and we noticed bubbling water coming from two of the wells, one on the north side of the high school and one on the south,” Neufeld said.

Immediately, Neufeld said a plan of action was developed involving the OWRB, Oklahoma Corporation Commission, Osage Nation Mineral Council, Bureau of Indian Affairs and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Adam Adams, the onsite coordinator for the EPA, said the agency started to monitor the air in the high school and the outside on the school grounds. He said none of the methane levels were dangerous on the school campus itself, but a site just north of the football practice field did show a higher than tolerable level of gas.

Working with the other agencies, officials were able to locate the other geothermal wells on the campus and two old oil production wells that had been plugged up — possibly the sources of the gas purge outside the high school.

Instead of plugging the two geothermal wells that are purging, officials said they are working on installing a venting system for the wells outside the high school to lift the gas out and above the roof-line of the schools buildings. A contractor was expected to begin work Tuesday.

Joe Cheshewalla with the Osage Nation Mineral Council said an abandoned oil well near the softball filed will be re-plugged all the way to the depth of the original drill, a process that could take some time. The cost for plugging the well will be shared by the state of Oklahoma and the Osage Nation, Cheshewalla said.

Likewise, the oil well north of the practice field will be plugged, with the oil lessee footing the bill for the services.

Pawhuska School Board President Michael Tolson said once the area has been deemed safe by all agencies, the Oklahoma State Fire Marshal will provide a final inspection before school will be allowed to open — a process that will take at least the rest of the week, maybe longer.

“The No. 1 priority is the safety of our students, teachers and staff,” Tolson said. “We will make sure everything is safe before we allow anyone in that building and before we even consider starting school.”

Neufeld said a contingency plan is in effect as well, in case school classes need to meet in churches and other buildings across Pawhuska.