County, public remained in dark about big methane leak

One night in early September, a critical piece of natural gas infrastructure temporarily blew its stack.

By the time a resident heard the racket, dialed 911 and workers responded, the Harmony compressor station in rural northeastern Pennsylvania had spewed more than twice as much natural gas into the air as a typical compressor station does in a year.

Yet the Sept. 2 leak was not made public by any state agency or by the company itself. The Associated Press learned of it during a review of calls to the U.S. Coast Guard’s National Response Center hotline for discharges of oil, chemicals and other substances.

County emergency management officials found out the same way — about a week after the fact. They said the station’s operator, Detroit-based DTE Energy, should have notified them at the time of the release so they could’ve taken steps to make sure residents were out of harm’s way.

“If it’s something like this that’s larger, we definitely need to know about it,” said Robert Thatcher Jr., coordinator of the Susquehanna County Emergency Management Agency. “I don’t know why they didn’t contact us. That’s a question that DTE needs to answer.”

Company spokesman Pete Ternes didn’t offer a direct response but said: “DTE has a strong track record of following all state and federal regulations.” He said that as a matter of courtesy, the company notifies the county agency of planned releases in case emergency officials get 911 calls from the public. On occasion, unplanned releases have been called in, also as a courtesy, he said.

State regulations require operators of compressor stations to “immediately” alert county emergency officials when there’s an “imminent and substantial danger to the public health and safety.”

The company might not have seen the methane release as a serious situation that warranted public notice, as the nearest residence is more than a half-mile away. There was no explosion and no one was hurt.

When Thatcher found out about the release and called DTE, “They said it was a minor leak, less than two hours,” he recalled. “We questioned them: ‘Did you notify the residents, did you reach out to them?’ They said no.”