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South Huntingdon gas leak prompts meeting

| Wednesday, July 17, 2013, 9:04 p.m.

Natural gas companies operating in the Sewickley-South Huntingdon area are working with the Westmoreland County Department of Public Safety on planning a training course for firefighters responding to emergencies along natural gas pipelines, a county official said.

The natural gas producers and the county are in the process of making arrangements for a firefighter training class, said Daniel Stevens, Westmoreland County Department of Public Safety public information officer. Stevens said he hopes it could be done in August or September.

“They have been phenomenal in terms of providing training. The training is high on their priority list,” Stevens said.

In case of an accident at a well or pipeline, Stevens said the gas companies are focused on safety for employees and nearby residents, protecting the environment and then the gas line or well infrastructure.

“That's the philosophy,” Stevens said.

The discussion of training sessions for area firefighters came during a July 2 meeting at the Sewickley Township municipal building of local government and emergency management officials with representatives from Chevron Corp., The Williams Companies Inc., Atlas Energy L.P. and Columbia Gas of Pennsylvania.

Sewickley Township Supervisor Wanda Layman said she called for the meeting “to open up the lines of communication between the townships and the (natural) gas companies ... so if an emergency arises, we would be on the same page.”

The meeting came after a leak developed in a small gas distribution line in South Huntingdon in June. Stevens said it was a leak in a one-inch feeder line that connects into a meter box. The line carried natural gas from a shallow gas well, rather than the deeper Marcellus Shale wells which tap the underground gas through horizontal drilling.

Layman said that officials were concerned that at one point during the emergency they might have had to evacuate the village of Gratztown.

“This was a wake-up call. This was a situation that could have been severe. We need to be prepared and we want to be pro-active,” Layman said.

Paul Rupnik Jr., Sewickley Township emergency management coordinator, could not be reached for comment.

Sutersville Mayor Alaina Breakiron, who attended the meeting the with natural gas company representatives, told borough council last week that the emergency responders are limited in their response to an accident along the many pipelines in the area.

“What they are actually allowed to do is nothing,” other than evacuate people, Breakiron said.

But, Stevens said that firefighters are directed to establish a safe perimeter around a leak, evacuate nearby residents if necessary and establish a safety zone.

Rillton fire Chief Paul Rupnik Sr. said that firefighters don't have the expertise in working on natural gas pipelines and are directed to let gas company representatives fix the problem.

Five members of the Rillton fire department have undergone training to know what to do in the case of a gas line incident, Rupnik said.

“We are in pretty good shape,” Rupnik said.

Breakiron said she is concerned because emergency personnel do not have maps to show them where the natural gas pipelines are located. The changes in ownership of natural gas pipelines also creates problems, Breakiron said.

“I don't feel better. I feel worse about the situation. I feel worse in the respect we don't know how big it is,” Breakiron said.

Joe Napsha is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at jnapsha@tribweb.com or 724-836-5252.

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