An explosion from a natural gas pipeline operating for only a week sparked a fire early Monday that destroyed a Beaver County home and two garages and prompted authorities to evacuate about two dozen other homes in the area.
The 24-inch pipeline’s owner, Dallas-based Energy Transfer Corp., said it was investigating but an early assessment of the explosion site showed there had been “earth movement in the vicinity of the pipeline.”
Center police Chief Barry Kramer attributed that to heavy, continuous rain over the weekend, but he said he’d leave determining the exact cause “up to the experts.”
Nearly 5 inches fell between Friday night and Monday morning, according to the National Weather Service.
An orange glow lit up the dark-morning sky after the fire began along Center Township’s Ivy Lane around 5 a.m.
“It was just a huge fireball. My house was shaking,” said Ivy Lane resident Toni DeMarco, 54.
Another Ivy Lane resident, 64-year-old Karen Gdula, heard what she said sounded like an 18-wheel tractor-trailer idling outside her bedroom window before the blast.
“The ground shook,” Gdula said. “It looked like it was noon and it was 5 a.m. The flames were shooting higher than the pine trees.”
Residents of between 25 and 30 homes on Ivy Lane and Pine Drive were evacuated to a nearby fire social hall along Brodhead Road and were being assisted by the American Red Cross.
Authorities closed busy Brodhead Road, which is connected with Ivy Lane, and Interstate 376 between the Center and Aliquippa interchanges. Brodhead reopened to traffic by about 10 a.m. and the highway, known locally as the Beaver Valley Expressway, reopened by midday.
About 1,500 people lost power after the explosion brought down six high-tension electrical towers, according Kramer.
Central Valley School District also canceled classes.
One of the few vehicles allowed onto Ivy Lane while the fire burned was a trailer used to remove several horses. Authorities relocated them to a safe area.
Energy Transfer spokesman Christopher Koop said the fire extinguished itself about two hours after it began. The pipeline’s monitoring system detected a problem and closed valves located about 15 miles apart to keep methane gas from flowing into the damaged part of the pipeline, Kramer said.
Ultimately, Kramer said, “The fire burned itself out.”
The methane gas line runs between northern Butler County and northern Washington County, and is part of what Energy Transfer calls its Revolution pipeline. It went online Sept. 3, Kramer said.
It is not associated with Peoples Gas, the natural gas utility that serves the area, or the multibillion-dollar Shell ethane cracker plant being built in nearby Potter.
Workers from Peoples were inspecting their gas service lines in the area to make sure they weren’t damaged Monday, but Kramer said it did not appear as if those lines were compromised.
Multiple agencies will be investigating, including the state Department of Environmental Protection and Public Utilities Commission and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Kramer said.
The PUC confirmed it is investigating, but declined to say more about its investigation. DEP spokeswoman Lauren Fraley said DEP had emergency response and oil & gas personnel onsite and will have staff on site today. She said PUC has primary jurisdiction of this pipeline and powerlines involved in the natural gas line explosion.
Late Monday afternoon, Fraley said, DEP staff conducted air monitoring using a handheld device at eight residences on Ivy Lane and found no evidence of gas inside or outside homes.
FERC didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Kramer said the incident needs to be investigated to determine how it happened and if other, similar pipelines in the area that are in-service or under construction pose similar threats.
“I think that’s a question that should be asked to the pipeline industry: Why did this occur?” Kramer said. “Is that something that we can go forward rest assured that this isn’t going to happen again. I can’t answer that other than I am concerned and I would like answers to those questions probably like everybody in this room. We still would like answers moving forward with this,” Kramer said.
Tom Davidson and Tony LaRussa are Tribune-Review staff writer.