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DEP looks into gas plant burn-off

| Tuesday, July 16, 2013, 11:42 p.m.

State air quality regulators are investigating complaints about a Washington County gas plant, including plumes of black smoke it spewed this week that locals said they could see from miles away.

New equipment at the MarkWest Energy Partners LP's Houston plant malfunctioned during its startup on Sunday and Monday, according to the Department of Environmental Protection. That triggered a burn-off of the liquid gases that go through the plant, according to MarkWest. The DEP does not know what exactly was in the smoke, regional spokesman John Poister said.

Inspectors visited the plant Monday and Tuesday to take air quality readings, Poister said. They will meet on Wednesday to analyze the results and discuss how to resolve repeated complaints about the plant, he added. A company official said there was never a public safety risk.

“The safety equipment worked as designed, and we will continue to work with DEP to evaluate the issue and take the necessary steps to minimize the potential of similar events,” MarkWest spokesman Robert McHale said in an emailed statement. “We appreciate the community's patience and understanding as this new equipment is put into operation.”

DEP officials have visited several times to respond to complaints about flares and smoke at the plant, Poister said. The state's inspection database shows only one complaint inspection, Dec. 10. It led to one violation for improper operation but no fine, according to the DEP database. Three other reviews since November 2011 led to no violations, though one administrative review from October is still pending.

It's been difficult to take action against the company because the complaints have been made after the events, too late for regulators to assess what's in the burn-off, Poister said. DEP is not likely to assess the company any violations from this week's problems, either, mainly because investigators couldn't see smoke by the time they arrived, he said.

“While we do have pictures, they essentially provide just a snapshot. We don't have a lot of things we would need to make a more conclusive judgment,” Poister said. “I don't know that citing them is the way to fix the problem. The way to fix the problem is to sit down with them and come up with a solution. That's our goal here.”

That's a poor strategy, said Matt Walker, an outreach director at the Clean Air Council, which has been fighting the DEP over the way it regulates MarkWest in Washington County. It has to fine MarkWest enough so that its officials know there are consequences to polluting, Walker said in an email.

“Fines that match the specific violation are one of the best tools that DEP has to enforce air quality regulations,” he said. “This incident and DEP's response are part of the larger pattern of how DEP lets gas companies get away with polluting the air we breathe with little to no repercussion.”

Timothy Puko is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7991 or tpuko@tribweb.com.

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