Shawn Sethman knew something was wrong before emergency responders even reached his doorstep during a severe thunderstorm in late May.
Sethman, who lives on Western Avenue across from the MarkWest Energy plant in Chartiers Township, feared the worst when he saw fire trucks the evening of May 28, so he got in his car and headed straight for Washington.
As he later learned, there was no fire or explosion, but lightning struck MarkWest’s natural gas processing plant and caused a leak. Nearly 100 residents were evacuated and directed by first responders to the nearest fire department, where they stayed for several hours while the leak was contained.
While no one was injured, Sethman and several others living near the plant said they are wary of their industrial neighbor.
“For us being as close as we are, I don’t think we’re ever safe,” said Sethman, who has two young children. “That lightning strike was small compared to what could happen there.”
In the past year, numerous residents complained about the frequency of flarings that discharge flames and plumes of black smoke into the sky. The lightning strike and evacuation also heightened tensions.
To assuage fears, MarkWest officials delivered letters this week to residents who were evacuated during the storm. MarkWest spokesman Robert McHale said the company wants to apologize for any inconvenience and offer thanks to the first responders.
“I went out and met with folks last week in advance of having this letter, so obviously our priority is to be responsive to the community, and we will continue to do so whether people reach us before or after having this letter in their hands,” McHale said.
Lisa Widener, who was evacuated by first responders after the lightning strike, said she believes both MarkWest and emergency responders handled the incident well.
“They took all the necessary precautions, so I’m not dissatisfied with them,” Widener said. “It went pretty smoothly if you ask me. They responded right away. They didn’t hesitate.”
Others remained skeptical. One woman, who lives less than a mile from the plant, said she was home when a MarkWest official dropped off the letter, but was disappointed he didn’t knock on her door or ring her doorbell.
The woman, who asked to remain anonymous, said she also left home before first responders reached her house.
Many residents were confused during the incident because first responders initially could not divulge what happened. Sethman and his wife, Erin, submitted a right-to-know request to Chartiers Township asking for a copy of an evacuation plan in the event of an emergency. That request was denied because of “security reasons,” Sethman said.
McHale said MarkWest is not responsible for developing an evacuation plan if the impact extends beyond the company’s property line and affects the general public. He said it’s up to the first responders to develop a plan.
State Rep. Jesse White, D-Cecil, said an alert system should be developed to notify residents of any issues at the MarkWest plant.
White said “acts of God” like lightning strikes cannot be avoided, but he believes problems at the plant are occurring more frequently.
“These ‘isolated incidents’ are becoming less and less isolated,” White said, adding that the state Department of Environmental Protection needs to be more proactive.
Dan Bykens, of Mt. Pleasant Township, lives next to a MarkWest compressor station and less than three miles from the main plant.
An air quality monitor placed at his property, provided by the SWPA Environmental Health Project, gave a “very unhealthy” or “unhealthy for all” reading on six of the 33 days monitored from April to May.
A reading for particulate matter was “unhealthy for sensitive groups” on nine days and “moderate” for the remaining 18 days.
Bykens believes there is a connection between the poor air quality and his proximity to the MarkWest plant. He was not evacuated after the lightning strike, but said he worries about future accidents, and especially the environmental impact of flarings.
“I’m more concerned about air quality right now,” said Bykens, who can see the plant from his front yard. “But the accidents, I mean, to be honest with you, if there’s a major accident, I ain’t going to be around to worry about it anyhow.”
MarkWest is still in the process of repairing a heat exchanger that was damaged by the lightning strike. The company has been rerouting some gas to its complex in Majorsville, W.Va., about 25 miles southwest of Houston, to keep production levels at capacity while the Chartiers plant is repaired.