Blast meeting draws questions

BY LAURA LEGERE

Times-Shamrock Writer

State regulators and natural gas company officials faced nearly two hours of questions from residents about safety, air pollution and eroded public confidence during a briefing Tuesday night at Montrose Area High School about a recent natural gas compressor station explosion.

Officials with the state Department of Environmental Protection and Williams, the company that owns the compressor station, sought to fill in gaps in the public understanding of the explosion and fire at the Lathrop station on March 29 and reassure citizens that the operations are safe.

Frank Billings, vice president for Williams’ natural gas gathering and processing operations for the region, said the incident began with a worker error during maintenance of one of the compressor engines at the station. The company has since reviewed and reiterated its training protocols. The mistake allowed gas to enter the compressor before it was ready, and the gas in the building ignited. Workers evacuated the site safely, he said. One employee suffered a minor injury that was reported after the incident.

“It was really a failure to follow one of our basic administration and safety procedures,” he said.

Residents questioned who is regulating pipeline safety in rural areas, like Springville Twp., where the Lathrop compressor is located. They asked whether local emergency responders have the equipment necessary to respond to similar incidents and how many compressors will be built to service Marcellus Shale gas wells in the region.

“I’m concerned that there is no oversight other than Williams’ oversight,” county resident Craig Stevens said.

DEP Regional Director Mike Bedrin emphasized that the agency regulates air contamination sources and air pollution control devices at compressor stations, but it does not regulate pipeline construction, worker training or other safety issues raised at the meeting.

“It is not within the realm of DEP’s regulatory permitting process to look at those overall safety issues at a facility like a compressor station,” he said.

The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, which has safety jurisdiction over pipelines in more populated areas of the state, does not have regulatory oversight of the Lathrop station because of its rural location.

A main question of the evening was why Williams restarted compressors on the night of April 1 after a DEP official instructed the company on March 30 not to turn on the engines until a state engineer could review the site.

“I think it is clear that Williams should have stayed in contact with the DEP while we were doing our work over the weekend,” Billingssaid. “We felt like we were doing the things that we needed to do, and that the DEP had requested us to do, to allow us to start up.”

Asked why the department did not issue an order for Williams to keep the station shut down after the explosion,  Bedrin said, “Maybe that’s a lesson learned for DEP here.”

He added that in similar situations, directives and requests have been honored without orders.

Bedrin emphasized that the department could have shut the compressor station down when it inspected the site after the engines were restarted, but state inspectors found that the facility was operating properly and within its permit limits.

The department plans to complete and publish a report of its investigation,  Bedrin said, including any fines or violations if it issues them.