MarkWest officials say their Marcellus Shale processing plant near Houston is now operating properly and no longer “flaring” natural gas or putting a towering plume of black smoke into the air.
The flaring, which was the result of a backup safety procedure, began Sunday night after MarkWest began operating a new de-ethanizer that was not functioning properly.
MarkWest spokesman Rob McHale said the flaring of natural gas liquid was the result of an “upset condition” as workers at the processing plant attempted to configure the newly installed equipment that separates propane and butane. The flaring continued late into Monday night, but there was no sign of the black plume Tuesday.
“It’s not a malfunction,” McHale said. “That is a safety system that is designed to do exactly what it did.”
State environmental regulators traveled to the site Tuesday morning to investigate the issue and discuss with MarkWest workers how it can be prevented in the future. Department of Environmental Protection spokesman John Poister said preliminary findings show the company committed no violations, but the flaring and plume were still unsettling.
“Obviously we don’t like to see pictures of plumes of black smoke, so we’ll talk to them a little bit more about preventing these instances in the future,” Poister said. “Not only is it not good to see that in the atmosphere, it also alarms people.”
The company originally planned to perform the flaring Sunday night, but the DEP became aware there was a problem with the processing plant’s systems when it continued most of the day Monday.
Dennis McCarthy, the new director at the Western Area Career and Technology Center, said he was alarmed while driving to the school Monday morning when he saw a large “ball of fire” near the building. He saw the black plume for about six hours while at the school, just a few hundred yards from the plant, but didn’t notice air quality problems while outside.
“I didn’t know what it was,” McCarthy said. “It’s a distance away, but when you’re looking at it from the bottom of the hill, you can only see the ball of fire.”
Washington County Public Safety Director Jeff Yates said there were a couple of complaints from area residents about the event to the National Response Center, a centralized federal reporting center for reports of chemical spills. However, he does not know of any immediate about public health concerns from the flaring. Yates added that 911 did not receive any emergency calls during the problem.
Poister said the DEP plans to reevaluate the situation later this week and could meet with MarkWest officials again to discuss the situation. He noted the hot weather, but was unaware how much the flaring impacted air quality.
“It’s hot and it’s muggy. It’s tough,” Poister said. “They need to get this piece of equipment working.”
Staff writer Scott Beveridge contributed to this story.