Energy. Environment. Economy.

Man injured after pipeline explodes near his home in western Pa.

The explosion, which burned one person, caused flames to shoot above nearby treetops in the largely rural Salem Township, about 30 miles east of Pittsburgh, and prompted authorities to evacuate homes and businesses nearby.

Kerry Jobe via AP

The explosion, which occurred on a 30-inch interstate natural gas pipeline, burned one person and caused flames to shoot above nearby treetops in the largely rural Salem Township, about 30 miles east of Pittsburgh. It prompted authorities to evacuate homes and businesses nearby.

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 map of interstate pipelines that run through Westmoreland County.

courtesy of PHMSA National Mapping System

A map of interstate pipelines that run through Westmoreland County. Natural gas pipes are in blue, hazardous liquids in red. The explosion this morning occurred five miles east of Delmont.

The pipeline runs 9,096 miles and carries natural gas from the Gulf Coast to the northeastern U.S. The area of the explosion includes four separate pipelines running parallel in the same right of way, as well as nearby lines that cross each other.

The section of pipe that exploded was built in 1981. Spectra says “an inline inspection in 2012 revealed no areas requiring repair or remediation before the next inspection.”

The company did not say when the next inspection was scheduled.

Texas Eastern is one of the largest natural gas pipelines in the country, and the explosion will impact gas supplies across the Northeast. From Bloomberg:

 The company declared force majeure at midday, sending natural gas futures surging as much as 5.6 percent on the New York Mercantile Exchange on speculation that the outage will limit supplies to the Northeast.

The federal Pipeline Hazardous Materials Safety Administration will be assisted with the investigation by the state fire marshall and DEP, which will be investigating any impacts on area gas wells and any environmental impacts from the fire. The National Transportation Safety Board will also participate and release a report.

All interstate transmission pipelines are regulated by the federal government. The Pipeline Hazardous Material Safety Administration recently proposed new rules that would boost safety requirements, including leak detection in urban areas and operator qualifications.

PA One Call’s Bill Kiger says pipeline safety can always be improved but there are natural hazards with these lines.”You really can’t guarantee anything,” he said. “There’s the freeze and thaw cycles, anything can happen, which is why they should be attempting to put these pipelines at a distance from [occupied] buildings.”

PHMSA’s latest proposals are open for comment until June 7. Pipeline safety advocates have pushed for even more stringent regulations. Pennsylvania’s current pipeline building boom has meant greater scrutiny on new pipeline projects, as well as the thousands of miles of older pipelines. Lynda Farrell is the executive director of the Pipeline Safety Coalition and the Mayor’s Council on Pipeline Safety.

“Every time there is an explosion, every time there is a spill, the public is so highly in tune with pipeline infrastructure development that it becomes another source of angst, another source of fear,” she said.

Farrell says her organization has pushed for mandatory shut-off valves that would halt the gas flow if there were an explosion but PHMSA has not proposed that new rule.

Westmoreland County is not immune from the latest round of new pipelines. Construction on Sunoco’s Mariner East 2 and 2x is expected to begin this summer. Spectra Energy has a number of new pipeline projects in the state, including the Marcellus to Market, an expansion of the Texas Eastern line, and the Greater Philadelphia Expansion line, which will run through Chester and Delaware counties.

Note: This story has been updated. This story originally quoted a DEP official as saying the PUC was the lead on the investigation, it’s not, PHMSA has jurisdictional authority. More updates will be posted as they become available.


  • elise

    Living in the path of these pipelines is terrifying. That terror is only trumped by the anger I feel about my family and others being forced into this type of dangerous situation via eminent domain. How is it American to forcibly put potentially explosive giant transmission lines through property where the residents do not want them? My friends and family have already been arrested protesting clear-cutting for Sunoco’s Mariner 2 pipeline on our homestead. We are facing two 24 inch lines. Our house is in the blast zone. My father is 85 years old and can’t run away from a blast like this, like the man who had to run for his life today. We are under siege from this greedy corporation and have begged our government to help is. They’ve sent the police to arrest us instead. This is insane. We should not be told we have to live like this.

    • John Ely

      While I hear you and understand your concern and fear, but the Texas Eastern Pipeline has been around since the early 1960′s with few issues.
      Federal law requires regular and periodic pipeline inspection using time proven methods that are reliable.
      From the early reports this incident does not appear to be the fault of the pipeline or pipeline operator.
      It appears to be the fault of an unrelated contractor working in this pipeline’s right of way.

      • Greg Greenfield

        Seriously? Sources please.

        • elise

          “Spectra’s longest and most troubled pipeline is the Texas Eastern Transmission.”

          • John Ely

            Spectra is not without issues, however your FloridaBulldog citation and quote is a politically motivated article, biased, inaccurate as compared to federal PHMSA records and suspect at best.

        • John Ely

          Google search is your friend.

          Texas Eastern Transmission Pipeline is a 9,000 pipe mile collection of pipelines mostly running parallel with each other in the same right of way from Texas, Arkansas, Tennessee and several Gulf states to terminals and interconnections throughout the mid Atlantic and Northeastern regions.

          Collectively they transfer over 10.4 billion cubic feet of natural gas daily and other petroleum related products.

          The original 24 inch “Big Inch” and the 20 inch “Little Big Inch” pipelines were constructed in 1942-1944 by principal contractors Williams Brothers, Brown and Root (now KBR) as part of the WW-II war effort and sold to Texas Eastern in 1947.

          Subesquent pipes in the same right of way ranging from 12 inches in diameter to 42 inches in diameter were constructed in the 1960′s, 1980’2 and 2000′s.

          Numerous pipeline sections have been replaced and upgraded as maintenance, testing and monitoring has indicated since originally constructed.

          Several secions have been taken out of service and decommissioned for safety as indicated by testing and monitoring.

          • NorthernTier

            Are you John Ely of Ely and Associates?
            “Ely and Associates is pleased to be one of the foremost authorities on hydraulic fracturing, both in design, and implementation. Currently, the group consists of 85 full time technical employees and 2 contract employees. …”

            [Google *is* my friend.]

          • John Ely


      • elise

        If you slip and fall in a store, legally the business owner can be held accountable, especially if they fail to take precautions with regard for your safety. If gas companies put these pipelines everywhere whether people want them or not, accidents are bound to happen, no matter who is at “fault.” Companies know these materials are hazardous and explosive. The government knows it and the people know it. When people don’t want pipelines around they are bullied into it. People put up with this stuff because there doesnt seem to be a choice. Can we please stop pretending that pipeline owners and operators are somehow exempt from responsibility when things like this happen?

      • Greg Greenfield

        It’s a mistake to speculate on the cause of an accident before the facts are in. But there is not a scintilla of evidence that anyone was near the pipeline when it leaked and its hazardous contents exploded.

        The industry and its pet regulatory agency, PHMSA, like to perpetuate the myth that digging near pipelines causes most accidents. While not minimizing that hazard when pipelines are in the ground, PHMSA data show that corrosion, incorrect operation and material/weld/equipment failure accounted for 83% of
        hazardous liquids spills in 2015. Excavation damage, 3.6%.

        Since 1996 (again according to PHMSA data) there have been 11,190 pipeline “incidents,” collectively causing 360 fatalities, an additional 1,378 injuries, and costing nearly $7 billion (that’s with a “B”) in direct property damage.

        Hopefully that puts your “understanding” of the concerns and fear that people feel in some context. Sources available upon request.

        • John Ely

          First let’s get the facts straight and in context.
          (1) Reportedly this pipeline segment was commissioned in 1981.
          (2)There are more than 60,911 miles of crude oil pipeline, 185,000 miles of liquid petroleum pipelines, nearly 320,000 miles of gas transmission pipelines, and more than 2 million miles of gas distribution pipelines in the US.
          (3) The incident you are commenting on is not a hazardous liquid spill.
          (4) The PA state DEP and state fire Marshall are also investigating, not just PHMSA.
          (5) PA One Call reported there was a contractor was scheduled to dig in the vicinity of the pipeline explosion on the morning of the explosion, not PHMSA.
          The investigation of this incident will determine the cause and if the contractor was present, actively operating or in any way responsible.
          (6) There is no PHMSA collusion or conspiracy as you allude to.
          (7) Pipelines are under pressure when in operation, when the soil is disturbed near a pipeline it can allow the structure to squirm and damage the protective corrosion control coating or fracture a weld or longitudinal seam.
          After a soil disturbance the failure may not occur for a number of months or even years or until some additional disturbance occurs.
          Contractors digging or horizontal boring can easily damage the protective corrosion control coating on the pipeline or damage the monitoring system or damage cathodic corrosion protection systems resulting in eventual envelope failure, so yes, stop talking out of your ass and pay attention, contractors can and do cause failures, immediate and delayed.
          This is well documented by contractor associations, API, insurance investigators, forensic scientists, industry engineering firms and independent organizations such as AWS, ASTM, ISO, ASME in the Us and numerous similar organizations in Europe and Asia.

          Your numbers are skewed and incorrect.
          Also pay close attention to the details of each spill that you cite, most are very small pump station leaks or collateral spills from periodic/routine maintenance and are not serious leaks/spills or of consequence, but count toward to total incident count.
          Gas refers to natural gas, not liquid gasoline.

          Here are the official published stat data:
          From 1994 through 2013, the U.S. had 745 serious incidents with gas distribution, causing 278 fatalities and 1059 injuries, with $110,658,083 in property damage.

          From 1994 through 2013, there were an additional 110 serious incidents with gas transmission, resulting in 41 fatalities, 195 injuries, and $448,900,333 in property damage.

          Most of the above incidents were due to third party pipe damage, unauthorized tampering(theft) and an aging urban/suburban utility infrastructure.
          Numerous newer pipelines have had their share of failures/leaks/spills and the primary culprit has been traced to inferior pipe, inferior welding, inferior quality control and inferior installation.
          The inferior operations are directly the responsibility of the pipeline contractors, however the contractors have gotten slick, they form a new corporation, join forces with several other well known licensed contracting corporations, bid the job and if they win perform the job the cheapest way possible, pay themselves handsomely and allow the new corporation to dissolve or go dormant with no assets within 13 months of completion.

          My understanding of the issues are broad and deep.
          I sympathize with those that live close to a pipeline, I live less than 1 mile and work within 200 feet of a 30 and 36 inch Colonial Pipeline.
          It is the choice of the person or persons to live close to a pipeline, no one is forcing them to live there, there are always options.

          Perform a Google search for List_of_pipeline_accidents_in_the_United_States_in_the_21st_century
          select the wiki and read closely.

          • Greg Greenfield

            Thanks for sharing your “broad and deep” understanding. Thanks also for confirming the enormous number of fatalities and billions (with a “B”) of dollars of property damage from pipeline leaks, fires and explosions.

            This infrastructure is dangerous (as just demonstrated, again), and the weak-by-design federal and state regulators have proven themselves unable to make it safe.

            Let’s be honest about materials: there’s not much difference between a methane-fueled explosion and one caused by a so-called “hazardous liquid” like, for example, ethane. In fact, if you’re in the middle of the fireball I suspect it won’t make the slightest difference to you.

            For others following this conversation: note the straw man argument, often used by those who favor the interests of out-of-state drillers and pipeline operators over the Constitutional and private property rights of hardworking Pennsylvanians: “I live and work in close proximity to petroleum transmission pipelines, therefore you should be fine with it too.” It’s an insultingly dishonest and ultimately irrelevant point.

          • John Ely

            Let’s be honest, the numbers you initially cited are significantly higher than what I cited.
            Maybe you should stop driving a motor vehicle on public roads then, you or any individual are more likely to be seriously injured or killed or experience property loss/damage in a traffic crash than you are to be injured or killed or experience a property loss/damage from a pipeline leak/spill/fire/explosion.
            There is no weak by design federal and state regulators or regulations.
            If you were a pipeline owner or operator you would be complaining loudly about the liberal influenced extreme regulations, enforcement and penalties, especially the oppressive Obama administration federal rules and regulations.
            Much of the infrastructure you refer to as dangerous is owned and or operated by cities and states… are you willing to pay to arbitrarily replace the current infrastructure?
            Natural gas is primarily methane and the majority of the natural gas delivered by pipeline in the US is methane. Ethane is not a component transported long distance by transmission or distribution pipelines.
            Ethane is isolated from methane cryogenically and harvested for the petrochemical industry before the NG is conditioned and transported long distances for industrial/commercial/consumer use.
            I am not presenting a straw man argument, what I stated is fact.
            It concerns me that there are multiple pipelines running close to my home and business. So much so that I contact the regulatory agencies and the pipeline owners and inquire about the inspection process and current status on a regular basis.
            The pipelines closest to me is a 36 inch transporting gasoline and a 30 inch transporting natural gas and are about 200 feet away from the front door.
            The point being, I could move my business and my 100+ employees to another location if there was reason to, the same goes for my family and grand children at home, but so far we have chosen to stay. If that changes, I will choose to move away from the pipelines.
            I do not work or live in Pennsylvania and have no say or influence of private property rights of hardworking Pennsylvanians. I suggest you take that up with your duly elected state representatives and regulators.
            I never said or insinuated “I live and work in close proximity to petroleum transmission pipelines, therefore you should be fine with it too.”.
            You are the one doing the insulting and making accusations.
            OK smart ass, what are your proposed solutions for transmission and distribution pipelines?

          • Greg Greenfield

            John Ely lighten up. My numbers are accurate, and the simple and obvious solution to dangerous infrastructure that kills and injures people on a regular basis is less of that infrastructure.

            The oil and gas business is on an inevitable decline. If you haven’t noticed, the industry is destroying jobs and capital on an industrial scale.

            Meantime, the sustainable, renewable, clean energy train of the future is leaving the station. Better get on board before it leaves without you?

      • Greg Greenfield

        John Ely, please come back and update your speculative comments about whose fault this accident was.

  • Fracked

    Yet my county-Susquehanna-embraces each and every well pad, compressor and anything else they want. We have gas wells in our frontwards, backyards and our schoolyards. Drill baby drill. Burn baby burn

  • kenneth weir

    Yawn, are we not tired of privatizing the profits and socializing the costs? The Freidman school of economics is alive and well in the USA.

  • elise

    John Ely, do you have a source to back up what you are saying? (“From the early reports this incident does not appear to be the fault of the pipeline or pipeline operator. It appears to be the fault of an unrelated contractor working in this pipeline’s right of way.”)

    I have not heard Spectra assert that some “unrelated contractor” is responsible for this explosion. Instead I heard them say that they are “sorry.” –

    For anyone who is able to assist the family who lost their home, there is a gofundme page set up:

    James Baker remains in the hospital with burns on 50% of his body. His wife, Kellie is 7 months pregnant. They are newlyweds.

  • NorthernTier

    Going over TE’s alleged safe history simply serves to underscore the inevitability of gas pipeline “incidents”. And, the vulnerability of a gas fuel supply to interruption.

    Texas Eastern Transmission, LP – Critical notice – 05/01/2016 – 02:15:31 PM – Capacity Constraint
    “As previously posted, Texas Eastern (TE) has experienced an unplanned outage downstream of its Delmont Compressor Station and repair efforts to restore capacity are continuing. The return of capacity through Delmont Compressor Station remains unknown, but is known to continue at the current status of 0 through Gas Day May 3, 2016.”

    Texas Eastern Transmission, LP – Critical notice – 05/02/2016 –
    09:00:00 AM – Capacity Constraint
    “For Gas Day May 2, 2016, Texas Eastern (TE) has approved and scheduled nominations at each pipeline segment and meter station up to TE’s operational capacity. The following locations have been restricted due to requested nominations exceeding TE’s operational capacity: …”
    Too long a list to post; link to notice:

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