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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.

The incident happened at 8:30 a.m. Friday morning at the Texas Eastern pipeline near Croft Road in Salem Township, about 30 miles east of Pittsburgh.

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. 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.”

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. 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 says.

The pipeline runs 9,096 miles and carries natural gas from the Gulf Coast to the northeastern U.S.

The federal Pipeline Hazardous Materials Safety Administration will be assisted with the investigation by the state fire marshal and DEP, which will be investigating any impacts on area gas wells and 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 says. “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.”

Note: This story has been updated. This story originally quoted a DEP official as saying the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission was the lead on the investigation. PHMSA has jurisdictional authority.

Go to StateImpact Pennsylvania for updates on this story »