Pipeline blast leaves mark on Salem community

On the morning of April 29, people near Greensburg opened their Facebook pages to a fiery reminder.

The app’s “memory” algorithm picked up on the buzz created by images of an orange sky above Salem Township and asked users if they wanted to repost them on the one-year anniversary of a natural gas pipeline explosion. 

“Wow, already a year ago,” wrote Nola Ries, taking Facebook’s suggestion.

A year ago, Ms. Ries took to social media to assure her followers that her family was all right, her mother and brother having fled the family home in their undergarments after a bang and deafening roar unleashed a fire from Spectra Energy’s Texas Eastern transmission line that morning.

Thousands of people in a strip connecting Delmont and Greensburg and beyond have their own predominant image of the event — whether it’s a Facebook photo, a clipping from a newspaper yellowing in their homes, or a mental snapshot that persists a year later.

At Kelley’s Pizzeria, a spot that became a gathering point after the blast, a mini museum has been created marking the event. It’s a shelf with seven pictures — images that the restaurant’s owner Kim Kelley found on Facebook and framed — and a slightly damaged Spectra Energy hardhat that she found lying in the middle of the road.

It’s a conversation piece, Ms. Kelley said, and the conversations often are about how unsafe people feel now that they’re more aware of the natural gas infrastructure under their feet.

Ms. Kelley, whose restaurant’s vinyl siding melted in the fire after the blast, says pipelines don’t keep her up at night.

“I know that they have to build,” she said. “You can’t truck that everywhere. If you’re gonna go with that type of energy, you have to take the risks.”

For some in Salem Township, the explosion has been a call to arms against future natural gas development, which is proceeding rapidly in the form of new shale gas wells, metering stations, pipelines and compressors. 

For others, perhaps the majority, it has reinforced what they’ve already known and accepted — that oil and gas infrastructure is as much a part of the region as country roads and farm fields, and there isn’t much anyone can do about it.

“I don’t think my family thinks about it,” said Tom Ries, Nola’s father, who was at work at 8:15 a.m. when the explosion happened. 

The Ries’s home is about an eighth of a mile from the house that James and Kellie Baker were renting before a weld on a 30-inch natural gas pipeline cracked open — releasing flames hundreds of feet into the air.

Mr. Baker, who had been recovering from ankle surgery, was home alone that morning. He ran down the street on fire and was picked up by Jimmy Daniels, a contractor from Forbes Road who was driving by.

Severe burns to most of his body kept Mr. Baker in the hospital for months. The family, which has reached a settlement with Spectra and isn’t granting interviews, has since moved to Greensburg. In December, they welcomed a son, Elijah James Baker, a happy Facebook memory.

The home where they once lived is no longer there.

Mr. Ries’ house escaped without much damage, save for a buckled garage door, a melted plastic tarp and paint bubbles on a 1965 midnight blue Corvette, which he didn’t discover until a few months ago. While Mr. Ries wasn’t pleased about his interactions with Spectra representatives after the blast, he doesn’t live in fear of another accident and wouldn’t think of moving anywhere else.

“I figure the damage is done and it’s repaired correctly, so I’m safe for another 30 years,” Mr. Ries said.

But, he added, “If I bought another house, that would be my first question — where is the pipeline?”

In Salem Township, as in many parts of Westmoreland County, the answer would be everywhere.

Apex Energy LLC has permits to drill more than two dozen wells in Salem and in neighboring Penn Township. Sunoco Logistics is building two natural gas liquids pipelines.

Over the past year, the Spectra Energy explosion has been discussed at permit hearings, in township meetings and spaghetti dinners, with some residents urging a pause to the rate of development. But the talk has done little to arrest it.

Jordan Hoover, a community organizer with the Melcroft-based Mountain Watershed Association, said he believes that if the explosion had happened somewhere else, it might have changed people’s attitudes about the industry.

“[But] a lot of people that I spoke to said, ‘There’s already so much there, what does it matter if another pipeline gets put into the ground?’ ” Mr. Hoover said.

To which he says that the math is straightforward.

“Not every pipeline explodes,” he said. But the more pipelines there are in one place, the higher than chances of something going wrong.

‘They really stepped up’

Janet Rugh is unflappable.

The widow of a former natural gas company worker who always was nervous about gas safety, Ms. Rugh didn’t panic when she heard the pipeline explode a few hundred feet from her home. She didn’t run outside. She dialed 911 but when the phone went dead, Ms. Rugh figured the company would promptly shut off the gas.

So she waited until her son-in-law, Tim D’Aurora came knocking on her living room window to get her out.

During her brief escape, Ms. Rugh could see her mailbox crumpling like a burnt marshmallow and the retaining wall stacked with railroad ties starting to smoke. The heat left a burn on her neck.

Still, she wasn’t nervous, Ms. Rugh said, “Because I thought everything was going to be shut off quicker than it was. But I found out that’s not how it works anymore.”

It took Spectra about an hour to shut off the supply to the ruptured pipeline, which is considered a good result by federal regulators.

Ms. Rugh said she was able to keep cool because she knew her daughter, Caroline D’Aurora, wasn’t at home at the time of the blast. The D’Auroras live in a large white home a few hundred feet away. On the day of the explosion, the house’s facade turned a deep brown from the heat.

But Spectra took care of the family, Mr. D’Aurora said.

After putting them up in a hotel for a few nights while they waited for the electricity to come back on, Spectra paid to replace the D’Auroras’ roof, windows and siding, and repave their driveway. The money started coming within weeks, Mr. D’Aurora said. “They really stepped up and did their part in making everything right for us.”

Ms. Rugh watched for weeks as Spectra energy workers excavated the pipeline, hauled off metal and soil to be analyzed, and repaired the road. They were exceedingly attentive, she recalled, bringing her the morning paper when the road was closed, and checking in to see if there was anything she needed.

Ms. Rugh’s home got a makeover as well. The railroad ties are gone and in their place is a stone retaining wall. There’s new siding on the house and the garage, a new railing on the steps and several new windows.

The only remnants of the explosion are a melted thermometer still hanging on the garage wall and the slumped back of a plastic porch chair.

And there’s a postcard from a pair of local activist groups that Ms. Rugh received a few months ago inviting her to an event at her church to “learn how to protect your family from risks to health and safety from new shale gas development in your neighborhood.”

The main image on the postcard is the fire raging into dark skies on April 29, 2016. Another showing oil and gas industry trucks on a local road, was taken by Dawn Law, who lives in Slickville, a few miles from the blast site.

Ms. Law, a founder of the group Save Our Salem, was still working for an oil and gas company in 2015 when her views on the industry began to shift. That’s when Sunoco threatened to take her father’s land by eminent domain to build its Mariner East II pipeline.

He eventually negotiated an easement with the company, said Ms. Law, who lives in a trailer on her father’s land, but the experience and the subsequent construction has left her furious.

“A well site behind me, a well site across the street, three pipelines in my front yard, and a metering station,” she said. “It’s just completely changed my feeling about the place.”

When Ms. Law called Congruity Church to arrange payment for hosting the March 22 event advertised on the postcard, it was Ms. Rugh who answered the phone.

Was she planning a baby shower? Ms. Rugh asked.

No, Ms. Law explained, somewhat cautiously. It was about the pipelines.

“She just kind of told me she thought my heart was in the right place,” Ms. Law recalled, but that there’s nothing they could do.

Exactly right, Ms. Rugh said.

“You’re not going to stop the lines from coming,” she said. “They have the right of eminent domain.”

That breaks her heart, Ms. Law said.

But Ms. Rugh seems at peace with the current dynamic.

“I guess my feeling is like whatever it’s gonna be, it’s gonna be,” Ms. Rugh said. “That’s about it.”

Anya Litvak: alitvak@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1455.

Correction, posted May 15, 2017: The story has been updated to reflect the proper attribution for a photo taken by Dawn Law.

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