DEP: No fines in Lathrop incident
BY LAURA LEGERE
The Department of Environmental Protection will not fine the operator of a Susquehanna County natural gas compressor station that was damaged by an explosion and fire last year because state regulators determined that the incident did not violate the station’s air quality permits or federal air pollution laws.
The explosion on March 29, 2012, at Williams Field Services’ Lathrop compressor station did not cause the facility to emit more pollutants than its permits allow, according to a DEP report released on Wednesday. Approximately 42,500 cubic feet, or about 1 ton, of methane was released during the incident but the station’s permits do not limit emissions of the greenhouse gas and the amount of vented methane did not reach the threshold that would have required the company to secure a permit used by larger facilities.
“The explosion in and of itself was not a violation,” DEP spokeswoman Colleen Connolly said.
Williams also restarted engines at the Springville Twp. station prior to receiving DEP approval, but because the department did not issue an official order to halt operations the company will not be fined for disregarding regulators’ requests.
Williams said it did not understand that the DEP asked it not to resume operations until regulators could conduct a thorough inspection of the site four days later, according to the report.
“We maintain we made it very clear,” Connolly said. “However, it was not an official order by DEP to stand down so that’s not considered a violation.”
The blast was caused by human error, according to the report. A worker did not properly lock down a compressor engine when he was away during maintenance and other workers, who assumed the work was done, began to turn the engine back on. The gas that flowed through the system triggered the explosion about 15 seconds after workers evacuated the building and hit an emergency shutdown switch on the way out.
One person suffered only minor injuries during the incident but the blast tore part of the roof and sides from the station’s building, rattled nearby homes and drew emergency response crews from three counties.
The incident spurred public meetings and raised concerns about the safety and oversight of natural gas infrastructure in rural areas, which are not regulated like pipelines and compressors in more populated places.
Connolly said the department cannot issue fines for problems outside of the agency’s regulatory scope.
“We don’t have the power to penalize them for operator error,” she said, unless that error causes the facility to violate its air permits or pollution laws.
She said she was unaware of any other agency taking enforcement action against the company for the incident. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also inspected the station and issued recommendations for “good engineering practices” but no compliance orders.
According to the report, the DEP “has determined that there currently are no compliance issues associated with the incident and that follow up training and implementation of precautionary measures outlined by Williams will help to ensure the prevention of similar events in the future.”
The report details steps Williams has taken, first at its facilities in Northeast Pennsylvania and then across all of its operations, to improve training, maintenance planning, oversight and safety measures.
Williams spokeswoman Helen Humphreys said the company is pleased that the DEP agrees the company has taken appropriate steps to respond to the incident.
The state’s report accurately details Williams’ “effective and appropriate response to contain and resolve the flash fire at our Lathrop compressor station,” she said.
Some neighbors of the station said they were disappointed in the findings and the lack of a fine.
Paul Karpich, who lives about half a mile from the facility, said the state could have been more forceful in its response.
“Hopefully, there isn’t any future incident,” he said. “That could have been disastrous.”
A spokesman for the Clean Air Council, which advocates for stricter enforcement of air pollution laws, said the DEP “lacked the courage” to order the station to remain shut down for inspections last year so it is now “no surprise” the agency is not issuing any violations or fines.
“Clean Air Council rejects DEP’s argument that they do not have the authority to hold companies fully accountable for the pollution that they emit or compliance with DEP oversight,” Matt Walker said.