The rig operator was stumped. He’d been making good progress, but now something blocked the way forward. The operator, Denny Mong, stared at an unassuming metal tube in the ground — the fossil of an oil well. Spread around it was an array of industrial detritus and steel tools like giant surgical implements, which sunk into the spongy Western Pennsylvania meadow.
Above the hole, Mong’s rig, which towered 50 feet into the air, suspended a vertical ramrod. When it dropped, the ramrod only shot 17 feet into the ground before slamming to a stop. Earlier, Mong had managed to reach more than 500 feet deeper into the well. Then this obstruction, whatever it was, sent him back to the start.
Clearing it — prime suspects included metal casing, rocks, or a tree branch — would allow him to send cement and pea gravel into the hole, which reached hundreds of feet into Appalachian rock formations. Once an active oil well, now it was an environmental nuisance and the target of an ambitious federal cleanup program.