A man has been taken to the hospital with serious burns after a 30-inch interstate natural gas transmission pipeline exploded next to his home in Westmoreland County. About a dozen homes have been evacuated and a quarter mile evacuation zone remains in place. Video from the scene shows a raging fire lighting up the early morning sky. First responders on the scene say the man did not come in direct contact with the flames, but it was the intense heat that scorched him and his home.
The explosion happened at around 8:30 am Friday morning, about 200 yards behind a home in Salem Township, which lies 30 miles east of Pittsburgh. It destroyed that home, torched a field and damaged several homes near by.
Richard Johnston was in his house a quarter mile away. He thought a jet airplane had crashed in the field across from his house.
“We heard a terrible explosion and looked out and saw the fireball all around the place. We grabbed our dog, grabbed our coat and ran,” he said. ”The heat was too great, you had to leave.”
“It was just fire…everywhere you looked,” he said. “Debris on fire blowing across the yard here.”
Johnston said it was so hot firefighters stayed in their truck and told him his house might have to burn down. As it happened, the house survived, but plastic latticework and siding melted on the side of the house facing the blaze.
Fire officials say the injured man’s home was completely destroyed by the flames. His name has not been released and his condition is unknown at this point. He was taken to UPMC Mercy Hospital in Pittsburgh.
“It looks like a bomb went off. As far across my windshield as I could see was just a massive fireball,” Forbes Road Fire Chief Bob Rosatti told reporters at a news conference.
“While the fire was contained and gas was shut off—residual gas in the pipeline is continuing to burn,” says John Poister, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection. “A quarter mile evacuation zone is being maintained until further notice.”
Four pipelines cross the field where the explosion occurred. A nearby gas storage injection well operated by Dominion has been shut in as a precaution, Poister said.
Johnston said he’d known the pipelines were there, but hadn’t paid them much thought.
“It enters your mind,” he said. “They’re there. I always knew that. I knew something like that’s possible.”
Creighton Welch is a spokesman for Houston-based Spectra Energy, which owns the Texas Eastern line. He tells StateImpact Pennsylvania he has limited information at this point, but the company has activated its emergency response plan.
“Our first concern is for the safety of the community, our employees, and any others who may be affected,” says Welch.
The federal Pipeline Hazardous Material Safety Administration has jurisdiction over the interstate line and has sent an inspector to investigate the cause. Pipeline safety experts say it could be weeks before the cause is known.
PA One Call, the organization that coordinates safe digging near pipelines and underground utilities, reported that a contractor was scheduled to dig in the vicinity of the pipeline explosion this morning. Bill Kiger, executive director of PA One Call, told StateImpact that he doesn’t know if the contractor began the scheduled excavation today or not. Spectra Energy released a statement this afternoon confirming only one injured person. Kiger says the pipeline company is known for following the PA One Call rules.
“Spectra Energy is typically a good company to work with,” he said.
Over the past decade, Spectra has paid $403,142 in fines related to its Texas Eastern transmission system, according to data on PHMSA’s website.
In one case that’s still pending, regulators are seeking a $239,200 fine for a May 2014 incident in Greene County, where Spectra failed to administer required drug and alcohol testing for employees after a fire and accidental leak of 1,000 cubic feet of gas that caused $186,437 in property damage.
A series of five small earthquakes within the space of 24 hours in Lawrence County, near the Ohio border, has led to the shutdown of nearby fracking operations. The earthquakes range in magnitude from 1.69 on the richter scale to 1.91, which are small and typically not felt on the surface. The quakes occurred just after midnight on Monday in the vicinity of Mahoning Township, with the last one registered at 10:10 PM the same day, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Neil Shader says Hilcorp Energy shut down their operation on Tuesday and the DEP is investigating whether the string of small quakes were caused by fracking.
Penn State professor Andrew Nyblade says there is a correlation, in space and time, between the quakes and the fracking operation, but a causal link has not yet been established.
“These are the first seismic events that have been correlated to fracking [in Pennsylvania],” said Nyblade. “That’s not to say this hasn’t happened before.”
One of Nyblade’s graduate students, Kyle Homman, recently completed research and wrote his thesis on seismicity in the state, and did not find evidence linking earthquakes to oil and gas activity. The study spanned 23 months, from February 2013 to December, 2014. Nyblade says the research located more than 1500 “seismic events,” and linked them to blasting activities at coal mines and quarries. He says there were about 10 earthquakes not linked to mining activity. Continue Reading
Pennsylvania state forestry officials say a brush fire that’s consumed more than 8,000 acres of woodlands in the Poconos is finally under control. It took about 130 firefighters to battle the blaze in Pike and Monroe counties, which has been burning for a week. Dubbed the “Sixteen Mile Fire,” it’s damaged about a dozen structures including some vacation cabins.
Department of Conservation and Natural Resources spokeswoman Chris Novak says spring is wildfire season in Pennsylvania.
“This particular spring has been especially dry,” said Novak. “We have not had the wet weather that we’ve had in the past couple of years. This is one of the largest fires we have had in the past 25 years.” Continue Reading
State environmental regulators are planning a major expansion of air quality monitoring, which will be focused on Marcellus Shale natural gas infrastructure.
“We heard the concerns of shalefield residents, and we are responding,” John Quigley, head of the state Department of Environmental Protection said in a teleconference announcement Wednesday. “We have been looking at the need to close data gaps since the beginning of this administration.”
DEP will spend $1.56 million over the next five years to grow its current network of 27 monitoring sites. The department will add 10 new continuous sensors to track fine particulate matter in counties with a lot of Marcellus Shale development in the northern and southwestern parts of the state. Regulators say they will try to place monitors close to clusters of large natural gas compressor stations, which process and transport gas from wells through pipelines.
The builders of the proposed Constitution Pipeline hit back at New York State on Monday after state officials denied a water-quality permit, halting construction of the controversial natural gas line from northeastern Pennsylvania into New York State.
The pipeline builders, led by Williams Partners of Oklahoma, said the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation had made “flagrant misstatements” and “inaccurate allegations” in defense of its permit denial, and accused the DEC of acting on the basis of New York State politics rather than environmental science.
Williams said it remains “absolutely committed” to building the 124-mile pipeline, which would carry gas from the Marcellus Shale of Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna County to markets in New York and New England. Continue Reading
Natural gas infrastructure projects are getting a $12 million boost in a budget bill Governor Tom Wolf has allowed to become law without his signature. The money shifts from the state’s Alternative Energy Investment Act and will be used as grants to hospitals, businesses, schools and local governments to expand access to natural gas.
The language is part of a broader bill known as the fiscal code–a companion piece of legislation to the state budget, which Wolf also allowed to become law last month. With this latest move, the state’s unprecedented budget impasse is finally over, two months before next year’s budget is due on July 1st.
GOP House spokesman Steve Miskin says legislative leaders have already begun talks with the Wolf administration.
“We obviously plan on an on-time budget,” he says. “Nobody wants to go through last year again– underscore, nobody.”
Wolf announced his intention to let the fiscal code become law in a press release late Friday afternoon.
“I look forward to coming together to reach a long-term solution to fix our deficit and to fund education at all levels,” he said. “I remain adamant that we must take additional steps to restore the cuts from the previous administration.”
Wolf recently vetoed a previous version of the fiscal code with more controversial energy and environmental provisions.
New York State on Friday denied a crucial water-quality permit to builders of a controversial natural gas pipeline, halting its construction through about 100 miles of that state and another 25 miles of Pennsylvania.
The decision was hailed as a big victory by environmental campaigners, who have argued that the Constitution Pipeline would destroy swathes of open land in order to pump fracked gas from Pennsylvania’s gas-rich Marcellus Shale to markets in New York and New England.
“This is a critical turning point for pipeline battles across the nation,” said Maya van Rossum, who heads the Pennsylvania-based environmental group Delaware Riverkeeper Network, which opposes the development of thousands of miles of pipeline in Pennsylvania and surrounding states. Continue Reading
A senior executive at natural gas driller Range Resources has apologized for suggesting the company tries to avoid putting its wells near big houses, where residents may have the financial means to challenge them.
The comment was made by Terry Bossert, Range’s Vice President for Legislative and Regulatory Affairs, at a legal forum in Harrisburg earlier this month. It was first reported by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
“Let me apologize as my attempt to interject dry sarcasm was clearly a mistake,” Bossert said in a statement released Thursday. ”We always work hard to create the biggest buffer between our operations and all residents.”
Bossert served as chief counsel for the state Department of Environmental Protection from 1995 through 1999. He said it is unfortunate that his “poor choice of words” would call into question his and the company’s commitment to working with people regardless of their economic means.
A state commission has signed off on significant changes to rules governing Pennsylvania’s oil and gas industry. The approval signals a final step in an often contentious, five-year effort by the Department of Environmental Protection to modernize drilling regulations.
After a seven-hour public meeting Thursday, the Independent Regulatory Review Commission (IRRC) voted 3-2 to give the green-light. The commission is charged with evaluating regulations for economic impact, public health and safety, reasonableness, impact on small businesses, and clarity.
The state House and Senate Environmental Resources and Energy committees now have 14 days to review IRRC’s decision.
“I believe the department has addressed this regulation as earnestly and honestly as it claims it has– intending to balance the interests of the affected industries and the public good,” says IRRC commissioner Murray Ufberg. “ [The regulations] have not been modified in so many years, and the industry has undergone dramatic changes which affect our population.”
The regulations, known as Chapter 78 and 78a govern both conventional drillers and the newer, unconventional, Marcellus Shale industry. Changes include updates to the permitting process. Drillers will now have to identify public resources such as schools and playgrounds. They will also have to identify old or abandoned wells that could be impacted by new drilling. If a water supply is tainted, the driller will have to restore or replace it to federal Safe Drinking Water Act standards, or the pre-drilling conditions, if they were better. The Marcellus Shale industry would also be barred from storing waste in pits, and using brine for dust suppression or de-icing.
Two members of Governor Tom Wolf’s Pipeline Infrastructure Task Force say it was a frustrating experience.
“It was a difficult thing for me personally and professionally,” says Cindy Ivey of the pipeline company, Williams. “I was probably the only task force member called out by name in a very unflattering way. It was a very toxic environment.”
The volunteer panel was convened last year to develop best practices for Pennsylvania’s ongoing pipeline building boom. It was made up of representatives from industry, environmental groups, and government. They focused on things like siting, permitting, environmental protection, safety, and community engagement.
The gatherings in Harrisburg had a circus-like atmosphere at times, with organized anti-fracking protests and emotional pleas from landowners who say the industry has bullied them. At the final meeting in January, seven people were arrested for disorderly conduct.