TUNKHANNOCK – When a valve at the PVR Partners natural gas dehydrator in Monroe Township failed on Black Friday, allowing methane to gush into the air, local emergency response suffered a communication breakdown that Wyoming County's Emergency Management Director called unacceptable.
On Friday, state and municipal officials revisited the Nov. 23 blow-off of natural gas at the facility – which emitted for over an hour a noise neighbors compared to a jet engine – at a public inquiry in Tunkhannock. The meeting was called by state Rep. Karen Boback, R-Harveys Lake.
Though invited, PVR officials did not attend the meeting Friday, a point Boback and state Sen. Lisa Baker called disappointing.
Emergency responders detailed outages of notification in response to the incident, including the failure to immediately notify county emergency management agencies, the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Environmental Protection.
But they said they have updated response protocols to ensure better lines of communication in case of a future event at the station.
Wyoming County EMA Director Gene Dziak said he was not notified when the blow-off took place and did not have full details more than a day later. He also did not have a copy of PVR's emergency response plan at his office, he said.
On Saturday morning, Wyoming County Emergency Management was getting phone calls inquiring about the gas incident that happened in Monroe Township, Dziak said. That was after Channel 16 (and Channel) 28 had it all over the news, and our response to that is, we don't know. That's unacceptable. This facility is in Wyoming County, this office needs to have that information.
Though the dehydrator is in Wyoming County, it lies within the coverage area of the Kunkle Fire Company in Dallas Township, so emergency calls the night of the incident were routed to Luzerne County 911.
Kunkle Fire Chief Jack Dodson said neither Luzerne County nor Wyoming County 911 dispatchers had an emergency contact number for PVR Partners.
We finally did get numbers, but we were under assumption, which we really shouldn't (have been), that PVR notified the local counties, Dodson said.
DEP was also not notified immediately, though PVR did follow protocol by calling the agency on Monday, according to regional spokeswoman Colleen Connolly. PVR needed to contact DEP within 24 hours or on the next business day in case of a weekend or public holiday, and Friday was a holiday for the state agency.
But DEP Environmental Emergency Response Manager Kevin Augustine said the department could have learned much more about the methane release if it had been notified immediately by emergency responders.
On a case like this, if there's a release we will send somebody out, Augustine said. …My directive to (PVR) was, well, you're saying everything went up in the air, a concern I have is that there's different atmospheric conditions all the time… if we're there or someone's there doing air monitoring, then we could say without a doubt, here's our findings.
Dziak said his office hosted an after-action assessment meeting Wednesday with representatives from PVR Partners, the state fire commissioner's office, PEMA, DEP, Boback, Baker and county and municipal officials.
In the event of a future incident at the station, Wyoming County EMA officials will be notified immediately, and upon arrival on scene will open lines of communication with PEMA, who can contact relevant state agencies like DEP and the state fire commissioner, as well as the Public Utility Commission.
Dziak also said PVR has submitted a new emergency response plan to his office.
It needs to be modified, Dziak said. That plan is not acceptable at this point, and we'll be working to make that plan more acceptable.
Residents of Monroe Township and Dallas Township living near the station also expressed concerns about how they should respond to an incident at the station, and officials said both the company and public agencies need to do a better job of notifying the public.
Where is the protocol, asked Barbara Goode, who lives across the street from the station in Dallas Township. Do we hide in our basements… Do we drive away? Do we hide? What do we do?
Other neighboring residents also expressed concerns about emissions from the facility, decreased property values of their homes and persistent low level vibrations and noises originating from the pipeline.
Dziak said it's impossible to tell residents what to do ahead of time because firefighters need to review the situation on the ground before determining if the public is in danger, but Dodson added that the Kunkle Fire Company will assign a firefighter to remain at the station to provide information to residents by phone in the event of another incident.
Baker and Boback suggested posting updates to the county websites as well as asking PVR to develop a reverse-911 system to call neighboring residents and provide instructions in an emergency.
I think we're all going to address the public information component, which I believe was woefully inadequate and continues to be, Baker said.
The Public Utility Commission enforces federal pipeline safety standards for natural gas gathering lines in more populated areas, including the PVR line near the dehydration station. Those federal guidelines include emergency response protocols for public notification, according to PUC spokeswoman Jennifer Kocher.
Kocher said the PUC could shut down the facility if we found that their operating was so egregious that they were not able to operate at all within a safe manner.PUC Gas Safety Supervisor Michael Chilek said the commission is investigating the incident. He also expects the PUC will conduct a separate public awareness inspection in early January.
Those inspections, which review PVR's plans for notifying the public in an emergency, are required every three years, Chilek said, and one has not yet been completed at the Monroe Township site, which went online in late September.