Charges filed 5 years after underground gas explosion leveled home and injured 3

CLARKSVILLE, Pa. (AP) — State authorities have announced charges against a company over a natural gas explosion that leveled a house and injured a western Pennsylvania family five years ago.

Attorney General Michelle Henry said Wednesday that the criminal complaint alleges methane gas in an underground storage reservoir owned and operated by Equitrans L.P. migrated upward into a deteriorating company storage well and eventually reached the Greene County home, leading to the blast.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported earlier this year that a Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection report last year said the source of the gas couldn’t conclusively be determined but cited Equitrans and Peoples Natural Gas as two likely candidates. While the report was not made public, it was included in the family’s legal action.

But the state investigative grand jury blamed Equitrans, citing testimony from current and former officials and industry consultants. The jury said methane gas found polluting the home’s water well would have come from below the 23-foot well, while gas from a utility pipeline would have been far above that, the Post-Gazette reported.

Natural gas storage fields such as Equitrans’ Pratt field allow companies to store gas underground and to extract it during periods of high demand, such as the winter months. But Henry said the company had long acknowledged in federal filings “that the Pratt field was losing gas and that wells within the field were likely leaking.”

Henry said the company was charged at the recommendation of a grand jury with a felony as well as misdemeanor counts of violating the state’s clean streams law in failure to properly maintain a storage well and in not having performed a stray gas investigation after the explosion, Henry said.

The Halloween morning blast in 2018 occurred as a Clarksville man turned on the stove to make his 4-year-old son a meal. Authorities said the man was briefly knocked unconscious, then ran upstairs to free his girlfriend and the boy from collapsed pieces of the house and got them outside. All three sustained burns and the blast destroyed the building.

Henry apologized to members of the family, who she said were present but didn’t speak, saying the family had no idea the underground field existed when they purchased the home. Pointing to pictures of the leveled house, she called it “a true miracle” that all three people managed to get out of the home alive.

“Every citizen deserves to feel safe in their own homes, unaffected by the environmental hazards created by large corporations,” she said.

Equitrans on Tuesday disputed the grand jury’s conclusion, saying it had fully cooperated with the body’s investigation and believes evidence it presented “factually demonstrates that Equitrans’ operations were not the cause of the incident,” spokesperson Natalie Cox said.

“We are reviewing the complaint in its entirety and will fully defend our position in this matter,” she said.

Henry said Equitrans had a policy to apply a gel to storage wells every few years to prevent corrosion, but this was seldom done — according to a company employee — “due to budgetary or personnel constraints.” She said stressed or dead vegetation, which can indicate leaking gas, was found near the home, and investigators found the main valve of the nearby well was leaking “large quantities” of methane, which company employees failed to pick up on.

“Had Equitrans done their due diligence and noticed the signs of a gas leak, they may have been able to stop the leak before this catastrophe,” Henry said. Equitrans was charged with prohibition against discharge of industrial waste, prohibition against other pollutions and two counts of unlawful conduct under the clean streams law, officials said.

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