Explosion response examined
MOUNDSVILLE — Marshall County 911 telecommunicators handled 37 calls in less than three minutes early Thursday morning, and they aren’t the only first responders who took quick action when a gas pipeline near here exploded.
“The 911 center did an excellent job,” said Tom Hart, director of the Marshall County Emergency Management Agency. “Not only did they handle the incoming calls, they managed the incident and were dispatching our resources as they came in.”
People who respond in emergency situations are somewhat accustomed to an industrial crisis in the Ohio Valley because of the region’s economic makeup going back well more than a century. But oil, gas and pipeline emergencies are still relatively new here because a horizontal drilling boom began in the region only about a decade ago.
“Prior to 2010, you’d have to go back 30 years to find another incident (like the one on Thursday),” Hart said.
Lou Vargo, director of the Wheeling-Ohio County Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency, said managing oil, gas and pipeline emergencies is completely different from handling other situations.
“This is like a whole new type of response for us,” Vargo said. “With a gas well fire, you don’t just put it out in a couple of hours and go home.”
Officials still don’t know what caused the Columbia Gas TransCanada Midstream pipeline to erupt and catch fire on Nixon Ridge at about 4:20 a.m. Thursday. But Hart has said it was the eighth similar event in Marshall County since 2013.
The first event of this type in recent memory happened in June 2010, when a gas drilling company hit a methane pocket in an abandoned coal mine. That explosion on Beams Lane sent seven workers to the hospital, Hart said.
Following that explosion, Marshall County formed an oil and gas task force to prepare for such events. Hart said the task force includes emergency management officials, 911 operators, firefighters, Marshall County Schools, the sheriff’s office and representatives of oil and gas companies who do business in the county.
“We don’t meet for the first time when an event happens,” said Hart.
In fact, he said, the task force had just completed an exercise on the Midstream pipeline two days prior to the explosion. First responders participated in a drill that included a scenario similar to the explosion that happened Thursday.
“We actually took our covered truck out and set it up like we did (Thursday),” said Hart.
Things are a little different in Ohio County. Vargo said emergency responders near Wheeling participate in regional training, but the county does not have a dedicated oil and gas task force like the one near Moundsville.
“They have a lot more gas wells,” Vargo said.
What Wheeling does have is a regional response team with the Wheeling Fire Department. The department also has air quality monitors that can check for gases such as oxygen and carbon dioxide to help in control and containment efforts, Vargo said.
But no matter what special equipment they use or how well they think they’ve organized a response, Hart said the task force members always meet after an event such as the one Thursday to talk about how their response can improve.
“It’s still a little early to tell” how good the response was, he said. “We will have to do another after action meeting after this and talk about the response. It doesn’t have to be major, but we will talk about things and say, ‘Maybe this is something for the future that we can look at.'”
Both Hart and Vargo said those conversations can lead to improved response times and even prevent injuries and fatalities.
“The first thing we did when (gas companies) first started was develop situational awareness,” said Vargo. “We needed to know where the gas wells are. Then we gave them all a 911 address.”
Fortunately, Vargo said, “We haven’t had any major events in Ohio County.”
While Marshall County plans to look at its response during Thursday’s pipeline explosion, state and federal agencies will look at what happened to cause the event and what needs to be done in the aftermath. Hart said members of the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection visited the scene after the explosion. The West Virginia Division of Forestry also was there because the fire burned about 10 acres of woods near the pipeline.
Jim Nicholson, the Marshall County inspector for WVDEP’s Office of Oil and Gas, said the investigation actually will be handled through the agency’s Division of Water and Waste Management. Meanwhile, because the Midstream line is an interstate pipeline, it falls under the jurisdiction of the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Transportation, WVDEP Communications Director Jake Glance said.
And planning could not have predicted some good fortune that happened the morning of explosion. Hart said Robert Jones, chief of Roberts Ridge Volunteer Fire Department, lives just down the road from where the explosion occurred and was able to get there fast. On top of that, Marshall County’s 911 center sometimes has as few as two telecommunicators working the overnight shift. But because of the way the center does its work rotations — and because none of the telecommunicators had a personal or vacation day scheduled — the center had five people taking calls and making dispatches at 4 a.m. Thursday.
“They were able to keep everything running smooth and get the response going,” said Hart. “That was very helpful.”