Pennsylvania environmental officials did not visit the site of a Christmas Day fire at a natural gas processing plant in Washington County until nine days after the incident, the state’s Department of Environmental Protection said on Thursday, confirming claims by environmental and community advocates and contradicting an earlier claim by the agency.
In a reversal of a previous statement that inspectors had visited the site, operated by Energy Transfer, on Dec. 25, the agency’s director of communications, Neil Shader, said that information was incorrect, and that officials in fact first visited the site after the fire on Jan. 3.
“DEP staff did not visit the ETC site on Dec. 25. I was in error about that,“ Shader wrote in an email. “DEP was alerted to the situation but it was determined based on reports from on the scene responders that a DEP presence was not required as there was not a risk to air quality from the fire. “
“DEP staff then inspected the site on Jan. 3,” he said.
The incident prompted the group the Environmental Integrity Project to urge DEP to hold a public meeting to inform the community about the explosion, stop operations at the plant until the cause has been identified and halt approvals for other cryogenic gas processing plants until the investigation is complete. The letter also reported another “significant flaring event” on Jan. 8 at the plant, referring to a process used for burning off excess gas, often to lower pressure for safety purposes.
“DEP’s slow response to the emergency, the long delay beginning the investigation, and the recent flaring event … have exacerbated community concerns about the safety and public health risks posed by the Revolution Plant,” EIP said in a Jan. 18 letter to the DEP’s Acting Secretary, Richard Negrin.
Alexis Daniel, a spokesperson for Energy Transfer, said the fire did not spread to other properties, and that any evacuations by residents were not the result of any order to evacuate.
“The incident occurred the morning of 12/25 and was contained to our property,” Daniel wrote in an email. “The investigation into the incident continues. There were no injuries reported. Neighbors were advised to shelter in place by the local emergency responders, as there was no immediate danger to the surrounding area. Additionally, we conducted air monitoring onsite, and there were no unsafe levels found that would affect our neighboring landowners. Any evacuations that occurred were personal decisions.”
Daniel said on Thursday that the investigation is continuing.
The fire at the Revolution Cryogenic plant in Smith Township, Washington County broke out at about 7:20 a.m. on Christmas morning after a valve failure, according to the DEP inspection report on Jan. 3, based on a Dec. 28 report to the agency from Energy Transfer. No injuries were reported but plant staff were evacuated, and at least one family whose property borders the plant voluntarily left their home for several hours after the fire broke out.
One resident who left, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said she decided to flee to a relative’s house with her husband and two children because the Revolution Pipeline that supplies natural gas to the plant is the same one that exploded in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, in September 2018, and she feared a repetition.
Environmental groups have long accused the DEP of failing to rigorously regulate the fossil fuel industry, especially the natural gas companies that have been active in Pennsylvania since the fracking boom began in the mid-2000s. In 2020, former Attorney General Josh Shapiro issued a grand jury report that sharply criticized the agency’s management of the industry, and proposed a list of reforms to protect the public.
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Last summer, Dallas-based Energy Transfer pleaded ”no contest” to 48 criminal charges brought by Shapiro—now the Pennsylvania governor—because of the company’s repeated contamination of rivers, lakes and groundwater during its troubled construction of the Mariner East natural gas liquids pipeline system across the state.
On Christmas Day, the fire at Revolution Cryogenic burned until about 5 p.m. after emergency responders decided to allow it to burn itself out rather than attempt to extinguish it, the DEP report said. The plant separates methane in natural gas from liquids such as butane, ethane and propane by super-cooling the gas.
The plant was shut down until further notice, the DEP said in its Jan. 3 report. It said the amount of natural gas released was unknown at the time.
The Environmental Integrity Project and other advocates say for the DEP to postpone its inspection of a potentially life-threatening incident is a dereliction of its duty to protect the environment and the public, even over a holiday period.
“They need to have the emergency team on standby at all times,“ said Lisa Graves-Marcucci, Pennsylvania coordinator of community outreach at the Environmental Integrity Project, a nonprofit that advocates for the enforcement of environmental laws. “It was not available on Christmas Day. We don’t know why but it was not.“
Residents’ concerns, she said, are heightened by a natural gas compressor station in the same neighborhood, and people feel their interests are not being represented by the DEP in respect to both plants.
“There has been radio silence from the very agency that not only authorized these two plants but they oversee them. They have let the community down in such immense ways that it has rocked the confidence of these families, “ she said.
Cat Lodge, a member of the EIP outreach team, said she got a phone call early on Christmas morning from a neighbor who had seen the fire and asked Lodge to call the DEP because the neighbor was evacuating with her family.
“I called the regular Pittsburgh number, then you choose emergency, “ she said. “There was no person; it immediately went to a recording that said we are not available, please call back later. “
In its inspection report, DEP said Energy Transfer determined that a leaking valve in a water-wash area resulted in a vapor cloud that ignited and spread to surrounding equipment. “The ignition source is currently unknown, and there were no known combustion sources in close proximity,” the report said.