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  • Writer's pictureEnvironmental 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.”

Karen says that her neighborhood is all for progress. The residents understand that the pipelines won’t stop coming — but they, more than anyone else, also understand that safety needs to be the biggest priority. Ideally, she says, the pipelines should be built further away from homes, and there should be open communication with homeowners.

After the explosion and the introduction of yet another pipeline company into their small community, Karen and her Ivy Lane neighbors started attending Center Township supervisors meetings. They wanted to be aware of what was going on beyond their backyards: “We asked the supervisors for open transparency, to have representatives from both pipelines at those meetings so we could ask questions and be aware of what’s happening.”

Immediately after the explosion, the first issue Ivy Lane tackled was the high-traffic site their small lane had become. Before the explosion, the children in the neighborhood were used to playing on the small road. Afterwards, however, the street was clogged with press, construction vehicles, and curiosity seekers. Energy Transfer put security guards and cones outside the driveways to homes where the explosion occurred. The neighborhood raised concerns and asked ET to move the cones further up the road to block traffic. The company listened, and security kept curiosity seekers and media from clogging the lane for two months.

Ivy Lane also spoke up about the depth of the NF pipeline being built. They were concerned about two pipelines crossing — especially when one had already exploded. Pipelines are required to be only three feet deep, and the bottom pipeline (when two cross) only needs to be seven feet deep. Karen and her neighbors were worried, and at the supervisors meetings, they asked both pipeline companies if they could go deeper. NF ended up going 20 feet deep, and Karen says she and her neighbors are “ecstatic.”

Energy Transfer also listened to Ivy Lane’s comments about noise. In December of 2018, ET used helicopters to drop hydroseed and hydro-mulch in order to stabilize the earth. For all of December, the noise level was up and down, and there were even helicopters flying overhead on Christmas Eve. Karen says that her neighbors were very unhappy — “People just wanted some sense of normalcy for the holiday.” In December of 2019, however, after listening to Ivy Laners, ET made sure to get all equipment and contractors out of the area before the week of Christmas. Karen and her neighbors “did have the nice, peaceful Christmas in 2019 that [they] did not get in 2018.”

Karen emphasizes the need for open communication — “We raised our voices. We did it nicely, we didn’t yell, we didn’t scream. We asked for help, and [the pipeline companies] did listen to us.”


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