5 injured, home destroyed in explosion of pipe operated by Columbia Gas

RYAN HUTTON/file photoA crew works in Lawrence during the replacement of miles of gas lines following last year's Merrimack Valley gas disaster.

After a recent explosion that leveled a Pittsburgh home and injured at least five people, the CEO for Columbia Gas says the company is "deeply sorry."

It's a sentiment that will resonate with people here in the Merrimack Valley, where on Sept. 13, 2018, an overpressurized gas pipeline operated by the same company devastated Andover, North Andover and Lawrence. One person was killed, 25 others injured and more than 100 buildings were damaged or destroyed.

"Our customers deserve safe and reliable delivery of natural gas to their homes," said Mike Huwar, president and chief operating officer of Columbia Gas of Pennsylvania and Maryland, in prepared remarks of the Pittsburgh explosion. "We failed to deliver on our mission in this instance, and we are deeply sorry."

The explosion completely destroyed a home on Park Lane in North Franklin Township last week.

Officials have not released the name of the homeowner.

HOME NOT EQUIPPED WITH PRESSURE REGULATOR

The homeowner called 911 to report smelling natural gas Wednesday afternoon of last week and North Franklin firefighters responded and shut off the gas to the home. They were within a few feet of the house when it exploded, Washington County Public Safety Director Jeff Yates said.

"It's a miracle they weren't killed," Yates said.

Columbia had been working on gas line upgrades in the area, and the home that exploded is on a different street from the other homes that are served by the line being worked on, Huwar said.

Other houses in the area of the work were equipped with a new pressure regulator because of the new line that was installed. Huwar said the home that exploded was not equipped with the regulator.

"Therefore, when the new system was energized and because the pressure regulator was not added, the elevated pressure led to a leak, which led to the explosion," Huwar said.

The explosion was felt about a mile away in the Washington County public safety offices, Yates said.

"We felt the building shake," Yates said.

It rattled windows and knocked down ceiling tiles, he said.

When he went to the scene, "it's almost incomprehensible that that was a house," Yates said.

"There were boards in the trees, insulation in the trees. There was even a mattress in a tree. Some of the lumber from the house was impaled in the ground a couple hundred feet away," he said.

Five people were taken to the hospital with non-life threatening injuries. All were treated and released, Yates said.

The event marked the first explosion caused by a gas leak in Washington County that Yates has responded to during 34 years in the public safety office, the last 20 as its director.

TOWNSHIP DEMANDS COLUMBIA GAS STOP WORK

The incident prompted North Franklin supervisors to issue Columbia Gas a "cease and desist" notice demanding that the utility immediately stop all work in the township's boundaries not related to emergencies, including a major modernization project that's been in the works.

"Due to the severe nature of this incident, the Township has serious concern for the health, safety and general welfare of the public at large," township solicitors Michael C. Cruny and Gary L. Sweat wrote in the letter dated Wednesday.

Solicitors said that the explosion is "believed to be directly related to Columbia's error and resulted in the loss of property" and injured people including North Franklin volunteer firefighters.

"The Township understands the project to modernize your system will eventually continue," the letter said — but not until Columbia Gas officials respond to their concerns at an Aug. 13 public meeting and township officials give their written consent to the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission.

Columbia said it already has suspended all non-emergency work in the area and is in the process of checking, then restoring service to customers whose gas had to be shut off after the explosion.

Columbia has restored service to about 30 of the 60 customers impacted and the company is working to contact those who haven't, Huwar said.

Friends of the family who lived in the home started a fundraising effort to help them.

Columbia has set up a hotline for damage claims associated with the explosion: 1-800-445-5846.

The public meeting featuring Columbia Gas representatives is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Aug. 13 at the North Franklin Township volunteer fire department at 565 Sylvan Drive.

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