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destroyed home following pipeline explosion in San Bruno, CA

Unnatural Disasters

Guest blog by Meryl Compton, policy associate with Frontier Group

Roughly half of the homes in America use gas for providing heat, hot water or powering appliances. If you use gas in your home, you know that leaks are bad – they waste money, they pollute the air, and, if exposed to a spark, they could spell disaster.

Our homes, however, are only the end point of a vast production and transportation system that brings gas through a network of pipelines all the way from the wellhead to our kitchens. There are opportunities for wasteful and often dangerous leaks all along the way – leaks that threaten the public’s health and safety and contribute to climate change.

How frequent are gas leaks?

Between January 2010 and November 2018, there were a reported 1,888 incidents that involved a serious injury, fatality or major financial loss related to gas leaks in the production, transmission and distribution system, according to data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. These incidents caused 86 deaths, 487 injuries and over $1 billion in costs.

When gas lines leak, rupture, or are otherwise damaged, the gas released can explode, sometimes right in our own backyards. Roughly one in seven of the incidents referenced above – 260 in total – involved an explosion.

In September 2018, for example, a series of explosions in three Massachusetts communities caused one death, numerous injuries and the destruction of as many as 80 homes. And there are many more stories like it from communities across the U.S. From the 2010 pipeline rupture and explosion in San Bruno, California, that killed eight people and destroyed almost 40 homes to the 2014 disaster in New York City that destroyed two five-story buildings and killed eight people, these events serve as a powerful reminder of the danger posed by gas.

The financial and environmental costs

Gas leaks are also a sheer waste of resources. While some gas is released deliberately in the gas production process, large amounts are released unintentionally due to malfunctioning equipment, corrosion and natural causes like flooding. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that 123,692 million cubic feet of gas were lost in 2017 alone, enough to power over 1 million homes for an entire year. That amount is likely an underestimate. On top of the major leaks reported to the government agency in charge of pipeline safety, many of our cities’ aging gas systems are riddled with smaller leaks, making it tricky to quantify just how much gas is lost from leaks in our nation’s gas system.

Leaks also threaten the stability of our climate because they release large amounts of methane, the main component of gas and a potent greenhouse gas. Gas is not the “cleaner” alternative to coal that the industry often makes it out to be. The amount of methane released during production and distribution is enough to reduce or even negate its greenhouse gas advantage over coal. The total estimated methane emissions from U.S. gas systems have roughly the same global warming impact over a 20-year period as all the carbon dioxide emissions from U.S. coal plants in 2015 – and methane emissions are likely higher than this amount, which is self-reported by the industry.

In most states, there is no strong incentive for gas companies to reduce the amount of leaked gas because they can still charge customers for it through “purchased gas adjustment clauses.” These costs to consumers are far from trivial. Between 2001 and 2011, Americans paid at least $20 billion for gas that never made it to their homes.

These and other dangers of gas leaks are described in a recent fact sheet by U.S. PIRG Education Fund and Frontier Group. At a time when climate change is focusing attention on our energy system, it is critical that communities understand the full range of problems with gas – including the ever-present risk of leaks in the extensive network of infrastructure that brings gas from the well to our homes.

The alternative

We should not be using a fuel that endangers the public’s safety and threatens the stability of our climate. Luckily, we don’t have to. Switching to electric home heating and hot water systems and appliances powered by renewable energy would allow us to move toward eliminating carbon emissions from homes. Electric heat pumps are twice as efficient as gas systems in providing heat and hot water, making them a viable and commonsense replacement. Similarly, as the cost of wind and solar keep falling, they will continue to undercut gas prices in many regions.

It’s time to move beyond gas and create a cleaner, safer energy system.

By Meryl Compton, policy associate with Frontier Group, a non-profit think tank part of The Public Interest Network. She is based in Denver, Colorado.

Feature image at top of page shows San Bruno, California, following the 2010 pipeline explosion

Map of pipeline incidents across the US

Pipeline Incidents Continue to Impact Residents

Pipelines play a major role in the oil and gas extraction industry, allowing for the transport of hydrocarbons from well sites to a variety of infrastructure, including processing plants, petrochemical facilities, power generation plants, and ultimately consumers. There are more than 2.7 million miles of natural gas and hazardous liquid pipelines in the United States, or more than 11 times the distance from Earth to the moon.

With all of this infrastructure in place, pipelines are inevitably routed close to homes, schools, and other culturally or ecologically important locations. But how safe are pipelines, really? While they are typically buried underground and out of sight, many residents are concerned about the constant passage of volatile materials through these pipes in close proximity to these areas, with persistent but often unstated possibility that something might go wrong some day.

Safety talking points

In an attempt to assuage these fears, industry representatives and regulators tend to throw around variants of the word “safe” quite a bit:

Pipelines are the safest and most reliable means of transporting the nation’s energy products.
— Keith Coyle, Marcellus Shale Coalition

Although pipelines exist in all fifty states, most of us are unaware that this vast network even exists. This is due to the strong safety record of pipelines and the fact that most of them are located underground. Installing pipelines underground protects them from damage and helps protect our communities as well.
— Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA)

Pipelines are an extremely safe way to transport energy across the country.
Pipeline 101

Knowing how important pipelines are to everyday living is a big reason why we as pipeline operators strive to keep them safe. Pipelines themselves are one of the safest ways to transport energy with a barrel of crude oil or petroleum product reaching its destination safely by pipeline 99.999% of the time.
American Petroleum Institute

But are pipelines really safe?

Given these talking points, the general public can be excused for being under the impression that pipelines are no big deal. However, PHMSA keeps records on pipeline incidents in the US, and the cumulative impact of these events is staggering. These incidents are broken into three separate reports:

  1. Gas Distribution (lines that take gas to residents and other consumers),
  2. Gas Transmission & Gathering (collectively bringing gas from well sites to processing facilities and distant markets), and
  3. Hazardous Liquids (including crude oil, refined petroleum products, and natural gas liquids).

Below in Table 1 is a summary of pipeline incident data from 2010 through mid-November of this year. Of note: Some details from recent events are still pending, and are therefore not yet reflected in these reports.

Table 1: Summary of pipeline incidents from 1/1/2010 through 11/14/2018

Report Incidents Injuries Fatalities Evacuees Fires Explosions Damages ($)
Gas Distribution 934 473 92 18,467 576 226 381,705,567
Gas Transmission & Gathering 1,069 99 24 8,614 121 51 1,107,988,837
Hazardous Liquids 3,509 24 10 2,471 111 14 2,606,014,109
Totals 5,512 596 126 29,552 808 291 4,095,708,513

Based on this data, on average each day in the US 1.7 pipeline incidents are reported (a number in line with our previous analyses), requiring 9 people to be evacuated, and causing almost $1.3 million in property damage. A pipeline catches fire every 4 days and results in an explosion every 11 days. These incidents result in an injury every 5 days, on average, and a fatality every 26 days.

Data shortcomings

While the PHMSA datasets are extremely thorough, they do have some limitations. Unfortunately, in some cases, these limitations tend to minimize our understanding of the true impacts. A notable recent example is a series of explosions and fires on September 13, 2018 in the towns of Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover, in the Merrimack Valley region of Massachusetts. Cumulatively, these incidents resulted in the death of a young man and the injuries to 25 other people. There were 60-80 structure fires, according to early reports, as gas distribution lines became over-pressurized.

The preliminary PHMSA report lists all of these Massachusetts fires as a single event, so it is counted as one fire and one explosion in Table 1. As of the November 14 download of the data, property damage has not been calculated, and is listed as $0. The number of evacuees in the report also stands at zero. This serves as a reminder that analysis of the oil and gas industry can only be as good as the available data, and relying on operators to accurately self-report the full extent of the impacts is a somewhat dubious practice.

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

This map shows pipeline incidents in the US from 1/1/2010 through 11/14/2018. Source: PHMSA. One record without coordinates was discarded, and 10 records had missing decimal points or negative (-) signs added to the longitude values. A few obvious errors remain, such as a 2012 incident near Winnipeg that should be in Texas, but we are not in a position to guess at the correct latitude and longitude values for each of the 5,512 incidents.

Another recent incident occurred in Center Township, a small community in Beaver County, Pennsylvania near Aliquippa on September 10, 2018. According to the PHMSA Gas Transmission & Gathering report, this incident on the brand new Revolution gathering line caused over $7 million in damage, destroying a house and multiple vehicles, and required 49 people to evacuate. The incident was indicated as a fire, but not an explosion. However, reporting by local media station WPXI quoted this description from a neighbor:

A major explosion, I thought it was a plane crash honestly. My wife and I jumped out of bed and it was just like a light. It looked like daylight. It was a ball of flame like I’ve never seen before.

From the standpoint of the data, this error is not particularly egregious. On the other hand, it does serve to falsely represent the overall safety of the system, at least if we consider explosions to be more hazardous than fires.

Big picture findings

Comparing the three reports against one another, we can see that the majority of incidents (64%) and damages (also 64%) are caused by hazardous liquids pipelines, even though the liquids account for less than 8% of the total mileage of the network. In all of the other categories, however, gas distribution lines account for more than half of the cumulative damage, including injuries (79%), deaths (73%), evacuees (62%), fires (71%), and explosions (78%). This is perhaps due to the vast network (more than 2.2 million miles) of gas distribution mains and service lines, as well as their nature of taking these hazardous products directly into populated areas. Comparatively, transmission and hazardous liquids lines ostensibly attempt to avoid those locations.

Is the age of the pipeline a factor in incidents?

Among the available attributes in the incident datasets is a field indicating the year the pipeline was installed. While this data point is not always completed, there is enough of a sample size to look for trends in the data. We determined the age of the pipe by subtracting the year the pipe was installed from the year of the incident, eliminating nonsensical values that were created when the pipeline age was not provided. In the following section, we will look at two tables for each of the three reports. The first table shows the cause of the failure compared to the average age, and the second breaks down results by the content that the pipe was carrying. We’ll also include a histogram of the pipe age, so we can get a sense of how representative the average age actually is within the sample.

A. Gas distribution

Each table shows some fluctuation in the average age of pipeline incidents depending on other variables, although the variation in the product contained in the pipe (Table 3) are minor, and may be due to relatively small sample sizes in some of the categories. When examining the nature of the failure in relation to the age of the pipe (Table 2), it does make sense that incidents involving corrosion would be more likely to afflict older pipelines, (although again, the number of incidents in this category is relatively small). On average, distribution pipeline incidents occur on pipes that are 33 years old.

When we look at the histogram (Figure 1) for the overall distribution of the age of the pipeline, we see that those in the first bin, representing routes under 10 years of age, are actually the most frequent. In fact, the overall trend, excepting those in the 40 t0 50 year old bin, is that the older the pipeline, the fewer the number of incidents. This may reflect the massive scale of pipeline construction in recent decades, or perhaps pipeline safety protocol has regressed over time.

Pipeline incidents charting

Figure 1. Age of pipeline histogram for gas distribution line incidents between 1/1/2010 and 11/14/2018. Incidents where the age of the pipe is unknown are excluded.

B. Gas Transmission & Gathering

Transmission & Gathering line incidents occur on pipelines routes that are, on average, five years older than their distribution counterparts. Corrosion, natural force damage, and material failures on pipes and welds occur on pipelines with an average age above the overall mean, while excavation and “other outside force” incidents tend to occur on newer pipes (Table 4). The latter category would include things like being struck by vehicles, damaged in wildfires, or vandalism. The contents of the pipe does not seem to have any significant correlation with the age of the pipe when we take sample size into consideration (Table 5).

The histogram (Figure 2) for the age of pipes on transmission & gathering line incidents below shows a more normal distribution, with the noticeable exception of the first bin (0 to 10 years old) ranking second in frequency to the fifth bin (40 to 50 years old).

It is worth mentioning that, “PHMSA estimates that only about 5% of gas gathering pipelines are currently subject to PHMSA pipeline safety regulations.” My correspondence with the agency verified that the remainder is not factored into their pipeline mileage or incident reports in any fashion. Therefore, we should not consider the PHMSA data to completely represent the extent of the gathering line network or incidents that occur on those routes.

Pipeline incidents chart

Figure 2. Age of pipeline histogram for transmission & gathering line incidents between 1/1/2010 and 11/14/2018. Incidents where the age of the pipe is unknown are excluded.

C. Hazardous Liquids

The average incident on hazardous liquid lines occurs on pipelines that are 27 years old, which is 6 years younger than for distribution incidents, and 11 years younger than their transmission & gathering counterparts. This appears to be heavily skewed by the equipment failure and incorrect operation categories, both of which occur on pipes averaging 15 years old, and both with substantial numbers of incidents. On the other hand, excavation damage, corrosion, and material/weld failures tend to occur on pipes that are at least 40 years old (Table 6).

In terms of content, pipelines carrying carbon dioxide happen on pipes that average just 11 years old, although there are not enough of these incidents to account for the overall departure from the other two datasets (Table 7).

The overall shape of the histogram (Figure 3) is similar to that of transmission & gathering line incidents, except that the first bin (0 to 10 years old) is by far the most frequent, with more than 3 and a half times as many incidents as the next closest bin (4o to 50 years old). Operators of new hazardous liquid routes are failing at an alarming rate. In descending order, these incidents are blamed on equipment failure (61%), incorrect operation (21%), and corrosion (7%), followed by smaller amounts in other categories. The data indicate that pipelines installed in previous decades were not subject to this degree of failure.

Pipeline incidents charting

Figure 3. Age of pipeline histogram for hazardous liquid line incidents between 1/1/2010 and 11/14/2018. Incidents where the age of the pipe is unknown are excluded.

Conclusions

When evaluating quotes, like those listed above, that portray pipelines as a safe way of transporting hydrocarbons, it’s worth taking a closer look at what they are saying.

Are pipelines the safest way of transporting our nation’s energy products? This presupposes that our energy must be met with liquid or gaseous fossil fuels. Certainly, crude shipments by rail and other modes of transport are also concerning, but movements of solar panels and wind turbines are far less risky.

Does the industry have the “strong safety record” that PHMSA proclaims? Here, we have to grapple with the fact that the word “safety” is inherently subjective, and the agency’s own data could certainly argue that the industry is falling short of reasonable safety benchmarks.

And what about the claim that barrels of oil or petroleum products reach their destination “99.999% of the time? First, it’s worth noting that this claim excludes gas pipelines, which account for 92% of the pipelines, even before considering that PHMSA only has records on about 5% of gas gathering lines in their pipeline mileage calculations. But more to the point, while a 99.999% success rate sounds fantastic, in this context, it isn’t good enough, as this means that one barrel in every 100,000 will spill.

For example, the Dakota Access Pipeline has a daily capacity of 470,000 barrels per day (bpd). In an average year, we can expect 1,715 barrels (72,030 gallons) to fail to reach its destination, and indeed, there are numerous spills reported in the course of routine operation on the route. The 590,000 bpd Keystone pipeline leaked 9,700 barrels (407,400 gallons) late last year in South Dakota, or what we might expect from four and a half years of normal operation, given the o.001% failure rate. In all, PHMSA’s hazardous liquid report lists 712,763 barrels (29.9 million gallons) were unintentionally released, while an additional 328,074 barrels (13.8 million gallons) were intentionally released in this time period. Of this, 284,887 barrels (12 million gallons) were recovered, meaning 755,950 barrels (31.7 million gallons) were not.

Beyond that, we must wonder whether the recent spate of pipeline incidents in new routes is a trend that can be corrected. Between the three reports, 1,283 out of the 3,853 (32%) incidents occurred in pipelines that were 10 years old or younger (where the year the pipeline’s age is known). A large number of these incidents are unforced errors, due to poor quality equipment or operator error.

One wonders why regulators are allowing such shoddy workmanship to repeatedly occur on their watch.


By Matt Kelso, Manager of Data and Technology, FracTracker Alliance

Porterville incident map

Mysterious leak near Porterville Compressor Station, NY

Last month, FracTracker Alliance featured a blog entry and map exploring the controversy around National Fuel’s proposed Northern Access Pipeline (NAPL) project, shown in the map below. The proposed project, which has already received approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), is still awaiting another decision by April 7, 2017 — Section 401 Water Quality Certification. By that date, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYS DEC) must give either final approval, or else deny the project.

Northern Access Pipeline Map

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

The NAPL project includes the construction of 97-mile-long pipeline to bring fracked Marcellus gas through New York State, and into Canada. The project also involves construction of a variety of related major infrastructure projects, including a gas dehydration facility, and a ten-fold expansion of the capacity of the Porterville Compressor Station located at the northern terminus of the proposed pipeline, in Erie County, NY.

On three consecutive days in early February, 2017, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYS DEC) held hearings in Western New York to gather input about the NAPL project. On February 7th, the day of the first meeting at Saint Bonaventure University in Allegany County, NY, an alarming — and yet to be fully reported — incident widely considered to be a gas leak, occurred at, or near, the Porterville Compressor Station (also known locally as the “Elma Compressor Station”). The incident is thought to be connected to the planned upgrades to the facility, but was not even mentioned as a concern during the public meetings relating to the Northern Access Pipeline in the subsequent hours and days.

What follows is a story of poor communication between the utility company, first responders, and local residents, resulting in confusion and even panic, and has yet to be conclusively explained to the general public.

Incident Description

 Area of incident

Area of incident in NY State

We know that a little past 10 AM on February 7th, people in the villages of Elma and East Aurora, within about a mile of the Porterville Compressor Station, reported strong odors of gas. They filed complaints with the local gas utility (National Fuel), and the local 911 center, which referred the calls to the local Elma Fire Department. The fire department went to the Porterville Compressor station to investigate, remembering a similar incident from a few years earlier. At the compressor station, representatives from National Fuel, the operator of the compressor station, assured the fire company that they were conducting a routine flushing of an odorant line, and the situation was under control, so the fire company departed.

Residents in the area became more alarmed when they noticed that the odor was stronger outside their buildings than inside them. National Fuel then ordered many residents to evacuate their homes. The East Aurora police facilitated the evacuation and instructed residents to gather in the East Aurora Library not far from those homes. Nearby businesses, such as Fisher Price, headquartered in East Aurora, chose to send their employees home for the day, due to the offensive odor and perceived risks.

Around 11:30 in the morning, up to 200 clients at Suburban Adult Services, Inc. (SASi), were evacuated to the Jamison Road Fire Station, where they remained until around 3 PM that afternoon. Over 200 reports were received, some from as far away as Orchard Park, eight miles down-wind of the compressor station.

After East Aurora elementary and middle schools placed complaints, National Fuel told them to evacuate students and staff from their buildings. Realizing that the smell was stronger outside than inside the building, school leaders revised their plans, and started to get buses ready to transport student to the high school, where there had not been reports of the odor. Before the buses could load, however, the police department notified the school that the gas leak had been repaired, and that there was no need to evacuate. School officials then activated the school’s air circulation system to rid the building of the fumes.

Perplexingly, according to one report, National Fuel’s Communications Manager Karen Merkel said “that the company did not reach out into the community to tell people what was going on because the company cannot discourage anyone from making an emergency gas call.”

Merkel noted further, “You never know if the smell being reported is related to work we are doing or another gas leak,” she said. “This wouldn’t be determined until we investigate it.”

That smell…

Some background on gas leaks & odorant additives

Ethyl mercaptan molecule

Ethyl mercaptan molecule

An odorant, such as ethyl mercaptan, is often added to natural gas in order to serve as an “early warning system” in the event of a leak from the system. Odorants like mercaptan are especially effective because the humans can smell very low concentrations of it in the air. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, “The level of distinct odor awareness (LOA) for ethyl mercaptan odorant is 1.4 x10-4 ppm,” or 0.00014 parts per million. That translates to 0.000000014 percent by volume.

Not all natural gas is odorized, however. According to Chevron Phillips, “mercaptans are required (by state and federal regulations) to be added to the gas stream near points of consumption as well as in pipelines that are near areas with certain population density requirements, per Department of Transportation regulations… Not all gas is odorized, though; large industrial users served by transmission lines away from everyday consumers might not be required to use odorized gas.” Also, because odorants tend to degrade or oxidize when gas is travelling a long distance through transmission lines, they are not always added to larger pipeline systems.

The explosion and flammability concentration limit for natural gas refers to the percentage range at which a gas will explode. At very low concentrations, the gas will not ignite. If the concentration is too high, not enough oxygen is present, and the gas is also stable. This is why gas in non-leaky pipelines does not explode, but when it mixes with air, and a spark is present, the result can be disastrous. Methane, the primary component of natural gas, has a lower explosive level (LEL) of 4.4% and an upper explosive limit (UEL) (above which it will not ignite) of 16.4%. Nonetheless, levels above 1% are still worrisome, and may still be good cause for evacuation.

Therefore, the margin of safety between when natural gas is detectable with an odorant present, and when it may explode, is very broad. This may help to explain why the smell of gas was detected over such a broad distance, but no explosion (very fortunately) took place.

Local memories of gas explosion in East Aurora

Many East Aurora residents have had first-hand experience with the dangers posed by gas lines in their community. Less than 25 years ago, in  September 1994, a high-pressure pipeline owned by National Fuel ruptured in an uninhabited area between East Aurora and South Wales along Olean Rd. The blast left a 10-foot-deep, 20-foot-wide crater, and tree limbs and vegetation were burned as far as 50 feet away.

Porterville first-hand accounts and inquiries

FracTracker spoke extensively with one resident of East Aurora, Jennifer Marmion, about her experiences, and efforts to understand what had actually happened the day of this incident.

When personnel from the Jamison Fire Company — who are assumed to be first responders to emergencies of this sort — arrived at the Porterville Compressor Station, they were told by National Fuel that there was no hazard and that their services were not needed. Consequently, these crews left the site. The East Aurora Police Department was given a different explanation by National Fuel; there was a valve malfunction somewhere along Two Rod Road in Marilla. Still later, National Fuel indicated that the pipeline changeover occurred closer to the compressor station itself. The closest distance between anywhere on Two Rod Road and the compressor station, itself, is a mile and a half. And Ms. Marmion was given a still different story by a National Fuel engineer: that the odor, indeed, resulted during the replacement of a 100-foot-long section of aging pipeline at the Porterville (“Elma”) Compressor Station.

Key locations in incident report

Key locations in incident report

Some reports indicated an alternate explanation: that the odor originated at the East Aurora Town Hall (J. Marmion, pers. comm., via Channel 7 News), or a leaky valve along a pipeline near Marilla (J. Marmion, pers. comm, via East Aurora Police Department dispatcher). A member of the East Aurora Fire Department surmised that the leak might have been closer to Olean Road, south of the village, where there was a history of other leaks. The day after the incident, National Fuel indicated that the odor originated from the compressor station, and was the result of a routine, scheduled “blowdown” by National Fuel — wherein gas lines at the compressor station are cleared as part of routine maintenance. However, when pressed for more details, they did not provide them.

In need of follow up

More than six weeks have passed since the incident, and there is still no definitive explanation available. Clearly, there was considerable confusion about what the correct, and safe, procedure needed to be, as well as how this information needed to flow to the public. Ultimately, a representative from National Fuel’s Government Affairs office agreed that he would alert the local towns and fire departments when maintenance activities would be occurring. It is surprising that this was not already standard practice.

Although Ms. Marmion is continuing to be a determined citizen activist, she has been met with a frustrating array of ambiguous and often conflicting descriptions, phone calls that go un-answered, voice mailboxes at offices that are either full or not set up to receive messages. Furthermore, although National Fuel has told Marmion that there is an Action Plan to be followed in the event of an emergency, they have been unable to provide her with a written or electronic version of this document, because “the action plan is just known.”

National Fuel points to the weather

National Fuel maintains that the only factor that was out of the ordinary was that during the event, a combination of unusual weather factors caused the released gas to travel in an unusual manner and also not dissipate as quickly as expected. National Fuel also indicated that the strong odor (created by the additive mercaptan) was a benefit to the local community, added to natural gas so that residents would be alerted to problems. It’s important to note that the largest gas transmissions pipelines, like the nearby 26” diameter Tennessee Gas Pipeline to the east of Elma and East Aurora, as well other pipelines that will run to the greatly expanded Porterville Compressor Station as part of the Northern Access Pipeline project, will be without the odorant.

Here’s what FracTracker could verify, based on National Weather Service, and Weather Underground historical data. In the morning and afternoon of February 7th, the wind was uncharacteristically blowing from the east/northeast — atypical for western New York, when winds normally come from the west. Wind speeds were recorded between 10-15 mph. Humidity was also uncharacteristically high for February — topping out at 93% that day. Warm air aloft, combined with freezing rain, created a temperature inversion. The moist air then trapped the odor, which lingered across the region.

weather_feb72017

feb72017_wind-data

Screen captures of weather statistics on February 7, 2017 (Source: wunderground.com). Note dominant wind direction from ENE, as well as high humidity, during morning and early afternoon, when incident took place.

Who monitors air quality in Western New York?

Calls by FracTracker for clarification from the New York State DEC’s Division of Air Resources have gone unanswered. The only station at which the DEC monitors methane is located more than 275 miles away to the southeast, in the Bronx. In Erie County, where the incident took place, there are only four permanent ambient air pollution monitoring stations. These include stations in:

  • Amherst: Continuous monitoring of ozone, NO2. Manual monitoring of PM5, acid deposition.
  • Buffalo: Continuous monitoring of SO2, NOx, NO, NO2, NOy, CO, CPM5. Manual monitoring of PM2.5, PM10, toxics
  • Brookside Terrace/Tonawanda: Continuous monitoring of SO2, CPM5. Manual monitoring of toxics and carbonyls
  • Grand Island (special purpose only): Continuous monitoring of CPM5. Manual monitoring of toxics and carbonyls

PM” refers to particulate matter diameter. PM5, for example, denotes particulate matter 5 microns in diameter, and smaller.

The East Aurora and Elma fire departments lack the appropriate air quality detection instruments to make their own judgements on the explosive nature of these gas plumes. Instead, small towns rely on the expertise of National Fuel to arrive on the scene after a call has been made, so that National Fuel can take measurements and then respond to the community. Some residents waited over three hours for an assessment, but by this time the plume had drifted away two hours ago.

National Fuel, however, has not disclosed any of the air quality data measurements they made on February 7th when they responded to this complicated incident. Ms. Marmion and others still want to know what levels of methane were measured in the communities involved in this incident, or the specific quantity of gas that entered the air that day.

What’s next?

While National Fuel did not notify the residents or the school district administration in advance of the scheduled “blowdown,” their Government Affairs Representative indicated that in the future, town governments, community leaders, and the local fire companies would be alerted to the upcoming releases and maintenance work. Nonetheless, weeks after the odor incident, National Fuel has neither contacted the local community leaders, nor local law enforcement, to provide complete and detailed answers as to what actually happened on February 7th.


By Karen Edelstein, Eastern Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance. Special thanks to East Aurora resident Jennifer Marmion, for her insights and comments.