Marie Cusick is StateImpact Pennsylvania's Harrisburg reporter at WITF. Her work regularly takes her throughout the state covering Marcellus Shale natural gas production. Marie first began reporting on the gas boom in 2011 at WMHT (PBS/NPR) in Albany, New York. A native Pennsylvanian, she was born and raised in Lancaster and holds a degree in political science and French from Lebanon Valley College. In 2014 Marie was honored with a national Edward R. Murrow award for her coverage of Pennsylvania’s natural gas industry.
The explosion, which occurred on a 36-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.
DEP regulators want to get better at tracking fine particulate air pollution from natural gas infrastructure, such as these compressor units in the Loyalsock State Forest.
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 bill provides $12 million in grants to expand access to natural gas.
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.”
Range Resources executive Terry Bossert has apologized for suggesting the company avoids putting gas wells near wealthy neighborhoods.
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.
“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.
The new rules will affect both the conventional industry, which has been drilling in Pennsylvania since the 19th century and the newer, deeper wells of the Marcellus Shale industry.
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.
“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.
The researchers singled out Pennsylvania and argue it should enact a severance tax on gas production. Drillers currently pay a per-well impact fee, which has generated more than $860 million over the past four years. This year the fees are expected to bring in $185.5 million– the lowest amount ever.
“Pennsylvania would be wise to levy a severance tax on its oil and gas industry and deposit a portion of that in a permanent trust fund,” the authors write.
They note taxes from oil and gas development are affected by global energy markets and become a volatile revenue source if they are not in a well-managed fund. They also cite what’s known as the “resource curse,” in which economies based on natural resources grow more slowly than diverse economies.
In this new report the SRBC says generally speaking, “the basin’s water resources are sufficient in magnitude to accommodate the water demands of the industry concurrently with other water users.”
The report analyzes the time period between July 2008 and December 2013 and found the industry consumed 9.76 billion gallons of surface water and purchased another 1.97 billion gallons from public drinking water supplies.
A state senate panel discussed economic development and the permitting process in Pennsylvania.
One of the chief complaints from Pennsylvania’s top environmental regulator, John Quigley, is that he doesn’t have enough staff and resources. At a state senate hearing Monday on economic development and permitting, he repeated it.
“We have 671 fewer positions than we did 7 years ago,” Quigley told lawmakers. “Inadequate staff and technology hamper the agency’s ability to handle the volume of permits.”
The state Department of Environmental Protection recently pulled statistics on 2,592 permit applications it received between 2013 and 2015, and Quigley says nearly 40 percent were technically deficient in some way.
“The regulated community– which is not getting its money’s worth from its consultants– must do better,” said Quigley. “DEP must do better too.”
Sen. David Argall (R- Schuylkill) questioned whether more people would really make the agency run more efficiently.
“How can we be sure if we allocate additional dollars for additional staff the situation will improve?” he asked. “You can certainly understand the fear that more staff equals more bureaucracy, which equals more delay, not less.”