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Surprise! Vintage brine well from 1800s unearthed during Muskegon construction project

Rig working on Muskegon oil well

A 150-year-old abandoned brine and oil well unearthed during a Muskegon construction project created a temporary scare, then required painstaking detective and engineering work to secure so the project could move forward.

The situation unfolded on Jan. 29 when an abandoned well drilled in 1872 was unearthed by a crew excavating the foundation for the new Lakeshore Convention Center in downtown Muskegon.

The convention center project, supported in part by $499,999 brownfield grant from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) could have faced additional costs and delays. Fortunately, EGLE's Remediation and Redevelopment Division (RRD) was able to direct an additional $200,000 in cleanup and redevelopment funding to the project to offset the costs of cleaning up and plugging the old well. Michigan's Orphan Well Fund contributed another $82,546 toward the plugging.

EGLE's Oil Gas and Minerals Division (OGMD) administers the Orphan Well Program under Part 616 of the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act and maintains plugging and remediation contracts with specialized oil well response firms so that mobilization can occur immediately in emergency situations.

The fund, generated from taxes on oil and gas production in the state, is held by the State Treasurer and has covered the costs of safely plugging and abandoning nearly 400 wells in the state since 1996.

"It is a very important program and has had a tremendous impact on public health and the environment through the years," said Rick Henderson, field operations section manager with OGMD.

The well discovered on the grounds of the convention center was one of several hundred poorly documented and non-permitted wells from the 1800s found across Michigan.

Staff from OGMD scoured historical records and determined the construction crew has discovered the 148-year-old Mason Lumber Well #1. The well was drilled to collect brine.

Salt production from brine was a common side business of lumber mills throughout Michigan in the 1800s. Blessed with an abundance of scrap wood, sawmills had free source of fuel to boil brine down into salt. Hundreds of these brine wells were drilled at lumber mills throughout the state.

Oil was a common by-product of these brine wells and enterprising lumber mills processed this oil into creosote, a valuable wood preservative.

In the case of Mason Lumber #1, drilling for brine started in 1872 and the well reached a total depth of 2,627 feet in 1874. Brine and a modest amount of oil, roughly two barrels a day, were produced by the well. The well was finally plugged and abandoned in the 1880s.

The poorly-documented well created several challenges for EGLE's OGMD team and their drilling contractor.

While not a gusher, the unearthed well pipe (known as the casing) was slowly oozing oil and creating bubbles of gas. The team also suspected that something below the surface was stuck within the well's casing. Further complicating matters, the well casing emerged from the ground less than three feet away from the foundation of the adjacent Marriott Hotel in downtown Muskegon.

After the initial emergency response that captured and contained the oil and gas vapor leaking from the exposed well casing, OGMD working with RRD staff in the Grand Rapids District office developed a plan with a drilling contractor to safely plug and abandon the well.

First crews had to carefully maneuver a 68,000-pound drilling rig into the pit excavated for the convention center foundation and delicately position the large rig within inches of the hotel. An air intake to the hotel was sealed and rerouted to the other side of the building to protect occupants from air emissions associated with the drilling project.

A custom-designed well head was then cemented to the nearly 150-year old steel well casing and a safety device known as a blow-out preventor was connected to the well.

On the morning of February 12th, crews began drilling into Mason Lumber #1 for the first time in more than a century.

The drilling rig quickly descended 180 feet into the well and then progress slowed as the crew began losing drilling fluids, known as mud, at around 220 feet. The solution to this problem was to introduce cement into the well to seal suspected the gaps in the casing at that depth.

It would take 10 more days to drill the next 50 feet of Mason Lumber #1.

"The hole was a mess around 260 feet," said OGMD director Adam Wygant, noting the discovery of fragments of rope and wood brought up by the drilling rig from that depth. "It also appears to have been shot off with a black powder charge."

The drilling team had found valuable clues about the plugging of Mason Lumber #1.

When abandoning the well more than a century ago, workers had likely attempted to recover the inner 3-inch production casing pipe nested within a 5-inch intermediate casing and the outer 6-inch casing that rose to the surface. Oil well casings resemble a telescope with nested pipes narrowing as the well descends. When this inner pipe became stuck, workers at the lumber mill likely tried to break the pipe free with explosives.

"Blasting powder was a favorite item back in the day," said Paul Jankowski of the OGMD's Orphan Well Unit. "It could be purchased at just about any hardware store. Unfortunately, it adds an additional challenge to re-entries if an entire section of casing has been blasted in such a manner."

The rope and wood fragments were either remnants of hand-carved wooden plug  basically a tree trunk-and-wedge contraption designed to expand in the well casing or an assortment of junk from the lumber mill.

"Typically, old plugging materials ranged from anything that might be lying around the well site, Jankowski said. "Most of the time it was comprised of 'handy junk' like wire rope, soft rope, rocks, logs, chains, coveralls, boots, old tools. We've seen about everything."

In addition to the odd collection of junk coming up from the Mason Lumber #1 well, the drilling crew encountered a more challenging problem metal.

The drilling rig's bit was now rotating on more than 1,000 feet of steel pipe left inside the well bore after it was blasted apart. The rig crew switched to a milling bit and nibbled away roughly 12 feet of pipe over the course of a day.

By February 22nd, the drilling crew began seeing oil, gas, and fragments of shale. They had reached the Coldwater Shale formation at a depth of 272 feet.

"Because of the terrible condition of this well, we determined the safest course of action was go ahead and plug this well at 272 feet," said Wygant. "We were into the Coldwater Shale formation about 50 feet and below freshwater aquifers so we believe the plugging will protect groundwater and the community even though we didn't get as deep as we would have liked."

For the next two days specialized cement was pumped into the well bore creating a 222-foot long plug inside the pipe. Once the cement hardened, a half-inch steel cap was welded in place.

On February 26th the Mason Lumber #1 well was plugged and abandoned for the second time its nearly 150-year history.

"At the end of the day, I have a very high confidence that the final disposition of this well was a success," Jankowski added.

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