Lathrop Compressor Station Incident Shows Safety is Priority No. 1
One of the major news events recently centered on an incident at a Williams compressor station in Springville, Pennsylvania on March 29. It is no surprise this left the anti-natural gas movement chomping at the bit for evidence of cause to halt all natural gas development. We are happy to report that while we hope no incidents like this occur in the future, this incident was not the devastating or disastrous event the opposition to clean burning natural gas, and some media outlets, would have you believe. An informational session held by the Department of Environmental Protection and Williams confirmed this last night, and demonstrated Williams’ efforts to be transparent with the public on this incident and their operations.
What Really Happened?
To begin the meeting, Williams and DEP each gave a rendition of what occurred at the Lathrop Compressor Station on March 29. (DEP and Williams presentation video found here)
The first thing that occurred was methane gas leaked into the compressor building as a result of an employee not following the lock-out/tag-out procedures mandated by the company and OSHA. Then another employee, performing maintenance on the compressor, heard the methane leaking and discovered a valve had been left open. This employee immediately activated the stations shut-down procedure, stopping the leak. At this time, alarms sounded and all employees evacuated the facility.
Next, at approximately 11:40 a.m., an ignition source, which has not been identified, ignited the methane gas already leaked into the building. There were several potential ignition sources, including the 6 running engines, electrical sources and open laptops being used for work. The exact source will likely not be identifiable because of the multiple possibilities.
The ignition of the gas caused a flash fire.
“Flash Fire” Defined – National Fire Protection Association and Canadian General Standards Board
“A rapidly moving flame front, which can be a combustion explosion. Flash fire may occur in an environment where fuel and air become mixed in adequate concentrations to combust…flash fire has a heat flux of approximately 84kW/m2 for relatively short periods of time, typically less than three seconds.”
The methane fueled flash fire was extinguished within seconds; however, a second fire continued to burn from residual lubricating oil in the compressor station. This fire was very small, controlled quickly, and was put out within hours by local first responders.
Timeline: DEP’s Involvement and the Days Following
Thursday, March 29
11:30-1:00 PM: Williams notified first responders, employees, and DEP of the incident. DEP was notified last around 1PM because it is not a first responder agency, but conducts investigations and monitoring for methane, VOCs and NOX levels around the facility. According to both Williams and DEP, levels never went above permitted limits for the facility.
4:00 PM: DEP arrives on location. At this point the fire was only smoldering.
Friday, March 30-Sunday, April 1
Williams had a structural engineer and safety manager check the building to ensure it was safe for employees to begin investigating.
There was no structural damage to the facility. Next, Williams checked safety equipment and learned this equipment sustained no damages. Upon completion of this initial investigation, the facility was determined to be a safe work zone. Williams’ allowed its personnel to re-enter and begin checking engines and other operational equipment.
Over the course of the weekend, tests were conducted and the functionality of the station was slowly restored. Initial performance tests were done without dehydration and then repeated with dehydration to check for leaks. By Sunday night, Williams’ was able to resume compression with three engines operating at 80 percent capacity.
At some point on Friday, DEP requested Williams not begin operating again until a representative from the agency was present. This request was more of a suggestion, not a directive; a point acknowledged by both parties during the hearing. DEP maintains it had a right to order a shut down but nothing up to this point made the agency act.
Monday, April 2
Williams and DEP held a conference call to discuss findings from the initial investigation. Progress on getting the facility operational again was also discussed.
Tuesday, April 3
DEP representatives visited the facility to walk-through, observe, and conduct their own investigations. They remarked to other DEP officials on their surprise at the insignificance of damage within the structure except where the residual lubricant oil had burned. The damage was actually far less extensive than outward appearance led them to believe the previous week. DEP representatives also checked every monitoring system and concluded all equipment was compliant with the permit applications. Following this thorough investigation, DEP expressed it had no concerns for continued operations.
Wednesday April 4-Today
Williams was able to run 6 of the 7 engines by the morning of Thursday, April 5. The station once again operated at almost normal capacity. Williams compiled a report for DEP documenting its investigation, notified landowners of the investigation, and began making repairs to the building housing the engines. These repairs include plans to increase sound-proofing insulation and should conclude in a few weeks. Williams worked with DEP to conduct a public meeting to answer questions from individuals residing near the station and will be making changes to their report based on suggestions from DEP in a meeting held this morning.
Why Companies Implement Strict Safety Procedures
The above account describes what went wrong, but what is more important is what went right throughout the day. No one ever wants to see an accident in any industry, but because no activity is 100 percent risk free, companies operating in the Marcellus Shale implement very stringent safety precautions and procedures to protect people and structures near their facilities. The safety measures administered by Williams were followed to the letter and helped to ensure the incident was contained quickly with no injuries or environmental harm.
- The safety shutdown system worked flawlessly to have the natural gas shut off within seconds of alarms sounding.
- The alarm system allowed ample time for employees to vacate the site.
- Because the shutdown system worked as intended, the fire was contained to the compressor station building.
- Emergency procedures were activated and the Susquehanna County Emergency Management Agency was notified. Working as a team, Williams’ staff and local first responders implemented the emergency response plan for Lathrop station and within hours, the fire was extinguished.
- PA DEP conducted air quality monitoring during the incident and determined that there had been no air impacts that could result in a health risk.
- The majority of equipment inside the station was not harmed by the fire.
The Public Gets Their Questions Answered
Together, DEP and Williams held an information session on April 17th, 2012 . During this meeting, attendees were given an opportunity to ask questions. Because this meeting was public, individuals from any municipality, not just Springville, were able to ask questions about the incident. Here are some of the questions from individuals who formally signed up to speak.
Below is video of Jim Grimsley (Dimock, PA) addressing the DEP. Jim lives within eyesight of the compressor station and was a first responder at the scene. While many in the previous video question DEP’s judgment and response, Jim tries to make a valid point here: DEP is not notified of every house fire, barn fire, or car accident. Each of these incidents can contain any number of explosive or volatile chemicals. He asked “why then are people questioning DEP’s position on the Lathrop compressor station?” Notice that Matt Walker, of the Clean Air Council, does not appreciate these comments but Jim’s point was extremely valid and it’s little surprise someone from Philadelphia might not understand how emergencies are routinely handled in rural areas.
What Can We Learn From This?
We learn natural gas development, like any industry, is not 100 percent risk free, but teams of scientists and engineers work daily to ensure those risks are minimized. As much as we would love to continue simply telling you about the remarkable safety precautions at compressor stations, we now have an excellent example of what can go right when things go wrong. It is a testament to the dedication of companies like Williams making safety their number one priority in everything they do.
It is also an excellent demonstration of the preparedness of our local first responders. On Thursday, the responders from the Pennsylvania State Police, Susquehanna County Emergency Management Agency, Susquehanna Sheriff’s office and volunteer fire fighters from Springville, United, Rush, Elk Lake fire, Triton hose, Laceyville and Chinchilla hose fire companies showed exemplary levels of professionalism and dedication.
Companies already implementing strict safety training requirements are developing ways to reinforce these as the human error which occurred could have been avoided if the employee had followed protocol. They also learned important lessons in procedure and maintaining communication with DEP throughout their own investigations.
Williams representatives at the meeting noted the miscommunication that occurred with DEP’s request to halt operations until their representatives were present. Williams indicated this would not have been an issue had the company kept DEP informed of their findings throughout their weekend investigation. Company spokespersons candidly acknowledged they should have communicated better during this part of the process and will adjust their policies accordingly moving forward. It was a refreshing example of transparency that deserves to be emulated.
Our hope is we will not see any more incidents of this nature, but we are more confident than ever, should a situation arise, the procedures will be in place to contain them, especially given how local responders have been prepared and trained to handle them.Follow us on Facebook and Twitter!