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Salem Township neighbors, land heal year after pipeline explosion

| Thursday, April 27, 2017, 11:05 p.m.
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
One year after a natural gas pipeline exploded in Salem Township, charred logs sit on a hill overlooking a restored Texas Eastern transmission line at the farm of Randy Gillis on Wednesday, April 26, 2017.
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
One year after a natural gas pipeline exploded in Salem Township, charred logs sit on a hill overlooking a restored Texas Eastern transmission line at the farm of Randy Gillis on Wednesday, April 26, 2017.
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
One year after the Texas Eastern pipeline exploded in Salem Township, the fields at ground zero, on the farm of Randy Gillis, are recovering, and the landscape is returning to its pre explosion state, as seen on Wednesday, April 26, 2017.
Steph Chambers | Tribune-Review
Farmland in Salem, Westmoreland County, was charred in a massive gas pipeline explosion on the property of Randy Gillis as it looked on Saturday, April 30, 2016. The chimney still stands on a brick ranch rental house that was destroyed by flames.
Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review
Charred trees surround a chimney that remains after a home was destroyed as a result of natural gas pipeline explosion in Salem Township near the intersection of Route 819 and Route 22 on Friday, April 29, 2016. The occupant was injured.
Steph Chambers | Tribune-Review
The shell is all that remains Tuesday, June 14, 2016, of a Salem house burned in a natural gas pipeline explosion in April.
Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review
Vinyl siding on this home nearby was melted by the radiant heat from a natural gas pipeline that exploded in Salem Township close to the intersection of Routes 819 and 22 on Friday, April 29, 2016.

The rolling green hills interspersed with brown ribbons of newly plowed fields on Randy Gillis' Salem farm are an image of spring fit for a postcard.

Little hints at the destruction that scoured the fields after a 30-inch natural gas pipeline exploded the morning of April 29, 2016, sending a huge fireball hundreds of feet into the sky, leaving a massive crater and a desolate reddish clay landscape in its wake.

A year later, the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration has yet to issue its final report about the blast that scorched about 40 acres of farm fields, leveled a brick ranch house, left a man seriously burned, melted the siding on several nearby homes and rattled windows for miles around.

In a preliminary report, investigators said one factor in the explosion was failure of the tape coating used to seal the weld joints on 40-foot-long sections of pipe when the line was installed in 1981. Failure of the tape, which has been replaced by new technology, contributed to accelerated corrosion of the steel pipe.

Safety administration spokesman Darius Kirkwood could not offer a release date for the final report. He said Enbridge Inc., the company that acquired pipeline operator Spectra Energy this year, remains subject to a corrective action order the agency issued last summer, detailing requirements for testing, investigation and startup processes for the affected lines.

Gillis, whose family has farmed the 150-acre spread since the 1930s, said the burn area has been treated with lime, fertilizer and new topsoil. He's planning to move his beef herd onto pasture on part of the site this week and hopes the fields he plowed on another portion do well this summer.

“It was hard when I plowed. But we haven't been through a growing season yet, so we just don't know,” he said.

Gillis lives on the farm with his wife, Wendy, and their three children. Although their farmhouse and barn escaped damages, the brick ranch house where his late parents once lived was obliterated by the blast.

James Baker, a 26-year-old newlywed who was renting the house with his wife, Kellie, was home that morning recovering from a broken ankle when the inferno tore through. Baker spent months in the hospital and lost part of a leg as a result of his burns. He and his wife have relocated to Greensburg, where friends say he is working to rebuild his life.

Wendy Gillis said she, her husband and children have driven out along the pipeline right of way and marveled at how the land and foliage are coming back.

Reminders remain

But watching workmen finally bulldozing the remains of the house where Randy Gillis' parents once lived and where the Bakers' lives were changed forever was emotionally trying.

“That was very hard for me and Randy. His brother and sister were out and each took out a brick to keep. It is really heart-breaking,” she said.

Their neighbors, retirees Richard and Linda Johnston, who live on a hill high above the Gillis farm, say the bare branches on one side of the tree in their yard are a reminder of the heat that seared the land that morning.

“I was having my coffee and he was reading the newspaper,” Linda Johnston said. “(The blast) was nerve-wracking. Our sliding glass doors melted. We grabbed our emergency papers and money and the dog and got out.

“About a month later when I was washing my car, I noticed that the side mirror was partway melted,” she said.

Persistent concerns

Don Deaver of Plano, Texas, a mechanical engineer with three decades of experience in the pipeline industry, was an investigator for plaintiffs' attorneys in a horrific 2010 natural gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno, Calif. A 30-inch line like the one in Salem exploded there, leveling 35 homes, killing eight and injuring dozens in the heavily populated suburb.

While the energy industry maintains that underground pipelines are the safest way to move their products, Deaver said too often they are near homes and schools.

“Each one of these is a precursor of what can happen out there. A 30-inch, high-pressure pipeline is capable of creating a zone of death of 700 to 800 feet,” Deaver said.

Deaver wasn't surprised that pipeline company officials excavated hundreds of locations along the pipeline between Delmont and Lamberstville, N.J., after the Salem explosion.

In a release to shareholders last summer, the company disclosed that costs for repairs and remediation were expected to run as high as $75 million to $100 million.

Company officials said their findings prompted them to reduce the interval between in-line inspections of such pipelines, which federal regulations require every seven years, to once every three to four years.

It's unclear what, if any, work remains on the lines that once again are buried in the earth.

Enbridge spokesman Phil West said the 30-inch pipeline that exploded and three others that run parallel to it have all have returned to service, with the exception of one section.

“Approximately seven miles of line 27 (the line that exploded) remains out of service, from the Delmont compressor station to the east,” West said.

Debra Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer.She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com or via Twitter @deberdley_trib.

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