• Environmental Health Project

Personal Narrative: Karen Gdula

In the early morning hours of September 10, 2018, the residents of Ivy Lane in Beaver County, PA, went about their business as usual — sleeping, getting ready for work, reading the news. But around 5 a.m. the neighborhood would be changed forever when a gathering pipeline for natural gas and natural gas liquids in the hillside behind their block exploded.

When Karen Gdula’s neighbor called 911, she had to convince the operator that it was a pipeline that had exploded. Karen's neighbor stepped outside to get a better idea of the size of the fire against the lit-up sky, and through the phone the operator could hear the roar of the explosion. Karen notes that this came as a shock to everyone: “None of us knew about this pipeline being charged — having gas flowing through it — and that included our first responders, the police, the firefighters.”

Emergency responders arrived and told the residents of Ivy Lane to evacuate. When they were finally allowed to return to their homes after the explosion, they found charred cars, demolished trees, and one house reduced to ashes. To make matters worse, their small cul-de-sac became a high-traffic site for news reporters and curious civilians.

Karen grew up on Ivy Lane and had worked for a company that supplied safety equipment to the oil and gas industry. She was familiar with the systems used to monitor and shut down pipelines. There was even another pipeline beyond her backyard (now abandoned) that had been there since she was a child. She never imagined something like this could happen: “I thought to myself, ‘Fifty years since I was a child. This has to be safe.’ And [the explosion] proved that it wasn’t.”

The breaking of the pipe was blamed on a landslide that had occurred after three days of heavy rain, but Karen saw the rain as a blessing, too. “God was with us” — that heavy rain kept the forest wet, which slowed down some of the flames, and a shift in the wind that morning kept the flames from heading for the houses.

In the summer of 2017, life at Ivy Lane had become even further complicated. Karen had answered a knock at her door from a man asking to survey her land — in addition to the Energy Transfer (ET) pipeline that would soon explode, a National Fuel (NF) pipeline would be coming to the neighborhood beyond her property line.

National Fuel was able to claim eminent domain as a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) pipeline, and the pipeline was built in two different neighborhoods, only 30 feet from people’s houses. When asked if she’d ever considered moving — now that she’s surrounded by pipelines — Karen asked where she could go: “We do believe that with this whole Marcellus build-out, there are going to be more pipelines through Beaver County.”