Sep 8 2009

Emergency Shutdown

Gas Leak Shuts Down Steckman Ridge Compressor Station

Sitting on Top of Huge Underground Natural Gas Storage Field;

Contaminant Sprayed Over Homes, Animals, Water

Spectra Energy Takes 3 Days To Officially Notify Residents;

Was Pennsylvania DEP Notified as Required by Law?

DEP Says it is Investigating

A large compressor sitting on top of a 12 billion cubic feet underground natural gas storage field in Clearville, PA, went into emergency shutdown on a quiet Sunday afternoon with a noise that “sounded like a jet aircraft coming in for a crash landing,” according to Clearville property owner Dick Eckman.

An alarm sounded for approximately 20-30 minutes, according to Julie Kuhne, whose Clearville property, among others, was showered with a contaminant described as “oily mist” while her four children were in the yard.

Company officials say a natural gas leak caused the shutdown.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is currently investigating whether Spectra Energy complied with the legal reporting requirement within the required time frame, according to Michael Ruddeck, Air Quality District Supervisor for DEP in the Altoona office.

Emergency Shutdown

According to a report filed with the National Response Center (NRC), a crack in a 1-inch diameter nipple caused a natural gas leak that triggered the emergency shut down. The NRC is part of the federal government and is the “sole national point of contact for reporting all … discharges into the environment anywhere in the United States and its territories.” (See links, references & photos below.)

The NRC report also notes that: “Expected clean up to private property may exceed $50,000.”

The emergency shutdown “vented all natural gas within the facility to the atmosphere as a safety precaution,” said Michael Baehr, Senior Right of Way Representative for the Steckman Ridge Area Office, in a notice given to residents three days later.

A two-page memo labeled “FINAL – 8-26-09,” that accompanied Mr. Baehr’s notice states: “Safety of the residents and the environment is our primary priority.”

According to Clearville property owner George Kuhne, however, “It has been obvious to us that the overall strategy for the incident on Spectra’s part is to downplay and deny.”

Did Not Communicate Quickly Enough

Spectra Energy acknowledges that, “We did not communicate with residents quickly enough,” according to Toni Beck, Group Vice President of Internal and External Affairs.

Three days passed before Houston-based Spectra Energy communicated with residents telling them not to eat vegetables from their gardens. The emergency shutdown and shower of contaminant on nearby properties occurred on Sunday afternoon (August 23). Property owners did not hear anything from Spectra Energy representatives until Wednesday evening (August 26). Some residents were not contacted until the following day (August 27).

In a three-page notice distributed to residents, the company advised: “We’re recommending that any edible vegetables or fruits that have been in contact with the oil not be eaten.” The memo does not specifically address drinking water, though it does say, “We’re also checking the water bodies and gardens in the area.”

Julie Kuhne spotted the yellow/orange substance with the consistency of oil as soon as she stepped out of her back door on the afternoon of the incident. It was all over her property, she said, visible on the stone slate at the door, the driveway and vehicles.

But Spectra Energy initially had difficulty spotting the contaminant.

Ms. Beck, the Spectra Energy Group Vice President of Internal and External Affairs, said the company initially believed “the trail of oil mist … ended within our compressor station property.” She added, “We assumed – incorrectly – that it had not traveled off our property and therefore did not impact any of the nearby residents.”

Two Spectra Energy representatives told Mrs. Kuhne they didn’t see any contaminant on her neighbor’s property when they inspected it on Wednesday afternoon (August 26), three days after the emergency shutdown; and after Mrs. Kuhne showed them the substance on her property.

The two representatives who inspected the property were Mike Baehr, Senior Right of Way Representative, who is based in Chambersburg; and Kevin McCrary, a contract landman for Spectra Energy who lives in Bedford County.

According to Mrs. Kuhne, when she questioned how the Spectra Energy representatives could have missed the contaminant on her neighbor’s property after seeing it on her own, Mr. Baehr replied that he didn’t know, but they were focused on the pond there. Mr. McCrary told her, “We didn’t go there not to find anything.”

PA DEP Investigating

Mr. Ruddeck, the DEP Air Quality Supervisor, explained to this blog that the Steckman Ridge Compressor Station “operates under an issued Air Quality Plan Approval.”

That Air Quality Plan requires the company to report malfunctions to the DEP in a timely manner.

“Malfunctions which pose an imminent danger to public health, safety, welfare and the environment shall be immediately reported to the DEP by telephone no later than 2 hours after the incident occurs. A written report of the malfunction shall be submitted to the DEP within three days of the telephone report,” according to Mr. Ruddeck.

Spectra Energy did not submit a written notification of the malfunction until five days after the incident (August 28).

Ms. Beck, the Spectra Energy VP, told this blog that, “we were in conversation with the PADEP within approximately 48 hours of the release of the oil mist.”  It would appear, however, that the reason they were “in conversation with PADEP” at that point is because the DEP contacted Spectra Energy first on Tuesday afternoon (August 25).

The DEP’s Mr. Ruddeck told this blog (emphasis added):

“Although Steckman Ridge personnel were aware of the facility shutdown at the time of its occurrence they apparently were unaware of the oil mist release off property or the scope of the release until they were contacted by the DEP on Tuesday afternoon 8/25/09.”

Contaminant & Water Testing to Date

Spectra Energy collected samples of the oily contaminant and Ms. Beck reported: “The laboratory report (performed by a third party, Analytical Laboratory Services, Inc.) states that the sample has a carbon range typical of various motor and lubricating oils. Furthermore, a toxicological review (performed by a third party, Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health) of the laboratory data and the Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) indicates lubricating oil has a low toxicity to humans, even if swallowed.”

DEP took its own samples of the contaminant on August 26 and told Mrs. Kuhne that test results will take 2-3 weeks. Five days later (August 31), another rep from DEP came out to take a water sample. A third rep is scheduled to come and run a different set of water tests to evaluate whether it contains by products of natural gas or oil.

Spectra Energy also took a baseline water test on August 28 before they began cleanup of the Kuhne property. They told the Kuhnes that the water was safe to drink.

Steckman Ridge Compressor Station

The Steckman Ridge compressor station is located four miles southeast of Clearville, PA, on Rock Hill Church Road. It and the 12 billion cubic feet underground natural gas storage field were the center of a two-year fight over the seizure of private property rights by Houston-based Spectra Energy Corporation, with the backing of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) that approved the project and gave Spectra Energy the power of eminent domain.

The Spectra Energy Watch blog emerged from that fight for property rights.

The compressor station houses one 4,735 horsepower reciprocating compressor, according to Ms. Beck, Spectra Energy’s Group VP of Internal and External Affairs.

This unit includes a 16-cylinder, natural-gas powered engine that drives a 6-cylinder gas compressor used to support injection and withdrawal of natural gas into the underground storage field (located in the Oriskany formation) by boosting pressure when and where necessary.


NATIONAL RESPONSE CENTER — Go to this federal government website to view the incident report: Click on “Query Standard Reports.”   When the next page comes up, the second field reads, “NRC Report Number.”  Type in 916122.  It may be a bit slow, but that should take you to the incident report.  In the event you have difficulty, here is a pdf file you can open by clicking on:  nrc-steckman-ridge-report-8-09

SPECTRA ENERGY’S OFFICIAL NOTIFICATION TO RESIDENTS — 3 Days after incident; click on image to enlarge.

Cover letter for Spectra Energy's notification to residents.

Cover letter for Spectra Energy

Spectra Energy p. 2

Spectra Energy p. 2

Spectra Energy p. 3

Spectra Energy p. 3

PROPERTY PHOTOS — Click on photos to enlarge.

Front windshield area of van after it had been washed the day before, still showing persistant contaminant spray marks.  Kuhne property, Clearville, PA

Front windshield area of van after it had been washed the day before, still showing persistant contaminant spray marks. Kuhne property, Clearville, PA

Battery cover showing contaminant spray.  Kuhne property, Clearville, PA.

Battery cover showing contaminant spray. Kuhne property, Clearville, PA.

One Response

  1. Roger Heisenberg Says:

    Kenneth Shutter, Mark Davis and
    Elvin Rochex were behind this catastrophe.
    DEP was advised but did nothing,
    EPA was warned but they did nothing.
    Instead Spectra Energy fired to the engineer who advised them of the potential problem.
    That is how Human Resources work in Texas- At Will-
    At will of the corrupt and immoral willing to do anything for a buck.

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