A tornado. A giant storm. An airplane crashing. That’s how neighbors described the sound of last week’s early morning natural gas pipeline explosion in Westmoreland County, just east of Pittsburgh.
“The noise was so loud—it was sickening,” says Dave Alund, who lives just down the road from where the April 29 blast occurred. “It consumed all the oxygen around here. You had a devil of a time breathing.”
Despite the intensity of the blast, which sent one man to the hospital and destroyed his home, Alund says it doesn’t make him worry about the potential for other mishaps with pipelines in the area.
“They’re constantly putting in pipelines. And they’re relatively safe. There’s a lot worse things to worry about than gas explosions,” he says.
LISTEN: “How Safe Are Pennsylvania’s Gas Pipelines?”
Investigators released a preliminary report that said corrosion along a weld in the 30-inch pipeline may have caused the blast.
“We hope that if there are lessons to be learned, the entire industry can use them to make the nation’s pipeline system even safer,” said Cathy Landry via email. Landry is a spokeswoman for the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, a pipeline industry trade group.
“Nearly 100 percent—99.999997 percent to be exact—of the natural gas transported by pipeline was delivered without incident last year. Our industry is committed to the goal of zero incidents, and we are working every day in pursuit of that goal,” she wrote.
The pipeline is part of the Texas Eastern Transmission line, a 9,000-mile system that transports natural gas north from the Gulf Coast to the Eastern Seaboard.
“Pipelines really are like underground energy highways,” says Brigham McCown, former head of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), the federal agency overseeing pipeline safety. “Some of them are interstates, some of them are rural country roads.”
And the Texas Eastern Pipeline is like an interstate highway.
McCown says 2.6 million miles of pipelines around the country carry oil and gas every day—almost always without incident.
“It’s about managing risk,” McCown says. “To the extent that pipelines aren’t used, then other forms [of transmission] are used. And they’re frankly far more dangerous.”
But accidents do happen. Over the past decade, PHMSA has compiled data on more than 300 serious incidents involving pipelines, resulting in 132 deaths. And these accidents can often take place close to where people live. In fact, Rebecca Craven of the watchdog group Pipeline Safety Trust says there’s no minimal setback for pipelines from homes and buildings established by the federal government.
“There are situations where, even with the ability to move away from a house or a group of houses, they are choosing to run a straight line and go close to those houses simply because it’s cheaper,” she says.
The explosion in Westmoreland County occurred 200 yards behind a house. A man in the house, identified as 26-year-old James Baker, fled the home just before it was engulfed in flames. He suffered third-degree burns on three-quarters of his body and was picked up by a neighbor who had driven up to the home in his truck.
“Pipelines really are like underground energy highways. Some of them are interstates, some of them are rural country roads.”
Nearby resident Dean Law heard the explosion two miles away. He initially thought it was a compressor station letting gas out of its pipes.
“Then it kept going. I said, ‘That doesn’t sound right to me.’”
For the last two and a half years, Law had been fighting Sunoco Logistics over the construction of a pipeline on his property. This year, he finally agreed to accept the company’s offer after Sunoco threatened to use eminent domain. But he’s not happy about it.
Among his main concerns is that the pipeline cuts through a mobile home park he built on his property and will pass within a few feet of his tenants’ homes. One of those is his daughter, Dawn Law.
The right-of-way follows the route of an older pipeline that was built on the land in the 1930s. The new pipeline will go right by Dawn’s front door. And the recent explosion has her worried for her own safety.
“Living this close to it, what chance do you have?” she says.
Dean Law doubts that will ever happen on his property. But he says the more pipelines there are, the more chances there can be for another explosion. And with the current drilling boom, he sees more pipelines in the future.