BY ERIC G. BACHMAN
On Friday, November 3, 2000, at 0900, the Lancaster County-wide Communications Center received a call from an excavator reporting he punctured an underground fuel pipeline and that product was leaking from it. When units from the Fire Department Mount Joy (FDMJ) arrived, they found a 40-foot geyser of diesel fuel oil spraying the countryside, saturating the ground and meandering toward a tributary of Back Run. The incident quickly turned into a large multiagency response that included hazardous-materials teams from three counties, state and federal environmental agencies, local municipal officials, and pipeline and cleanup officials. Firefighters’ and municipal road crews’ prompt action prevented the incident from becoming a large environmental disaster. Although the incident had a favorable outcome, there were many lessons learned applicable to haz-mat and fire incidents.
Looking north, the diesel fuel spewing from the pipeline ran into a natural conduit and gathered in a catch basin behind a preexisting earthen dam. (Photos by author.)
The incident occurred at the rear of a dairy farm at 1214 Strickler Road, located in rural Rapho Township in Lancaster County approximately three miles north of the borough of Mount Joy. The area is primarily farmland with varied terrain and dense tree lines. The eight-inch pipeline, operated by the ExxonMobil Pipeline Company, at the time carried diesel fuel oil at a pressure of more than 700 psi. The pipeline crossed the south side of the farm and ran under the mounded topography. The pipeline was struck at a low point in the valley, which contributed to a prolonged flow of material. ExxonMobil personnel shut down the line from a valve several miles west of the site. The residual diesel oil flowed south to the low point of the valley where the pipeline was breached. The geyser flowed for nearly 21/2 hours before subsiding, ultimately contaminating the countryside with more than 40,000 gallons of diesel fuel oil. Fortunately, natural and artificial conduits significantly contributed to the responders’ efforts to contain the diesel.
A front-end loader operator was excavating an access road that would later become a driveway for the construction of a new house. All excavators in Pennsylvania are required to call the PAOneCall 800 number before they start digging. PAOneCall allows excavators to advise all utilities about planned excavation so the utilities can determine if any of their lines may be involved. The front-end loader operator did not do so. As the machine excavated a layer of topsoil, one of its forks punctured the eight-inch pipeline, resulting in a deluge of diesel fuel. As the front-end loader operator attempted to back out of the area, he became disoriented because of the oil pouring down over his vehicle. The machine slid sideways down a slight incline but did not overturn. After the operator exited the vehicle, he called the ExxonMobil 800 emergency number, which was on a small sign posted near the breach, to report the rupture. He then called 9-1-1.
CONTAINING THE SPILL
Diesel fuel seeps through the bottom of the preexisting earthen dam.
Volunteers from the FDMJ and the Mastersonville and Hempfield fire companies arrived 11 minutes after dispatch. FDMJ Chief William Hall became the operations branch officer and special-called units from Florin, Susquehanna, and Rheems fire companies to aid in confinement operations. Haz Mat 2, the county’s hazardous-materials response team, was special-called at 0919.
Knowing that the incident would be labor-intensive, a second alarm was struck at 0927, bringing in additional units from Florin and Hempfield fire companies. Absorbent and confinement resources were quickly exhausted, and, at 0932, mutual aid was requested from Lebanon County Haz Mat 50. The uncontrolled geyser continued to spray thousands of gallons of fuel oil. It collected in a natural conduit that led to an artificial pool with an earthen dam at its southern end. Farm vehicles used the dam to access other portions of the property. The fuel oil eventually saturated the base of this preexisting dam and started seeping through the dam’s base south toward a tributary that leads to Back Run. While not a large waterway, Back Run leads to the Little Chickies Creek and ultimately to the Susquehanna River.
At Sector 1, a small excavator builds a second dam in front of the pre-existing dam to catch the diesel fuel that seeped through the bottom of the first dam.
Florin Fire Chief Philip Colvin, concerned about fuel oil permeation of the dam, used a local farmer’s small excavator to build a second earthen dam below the first one. He requested another backhoe, and the Rapho Township road crew responded with a backhoe and assisted in damming the growing fuel pond.
DESIGNATED OPERATIONS SECTORS
Fuel oil had made its way to the small tributary. Assistant Chief Greg Noll of Haz Mat 2, the haz-mat sector officer, conducted an impromptu assessment briefing with Operations Branch Officer Hall and Colvin and reevaluated the operations. The incident was expanded to three operational sectors.
Because of the large amount of diesel fuel at the incident, Engine 73-2 and Tanker 711 were positioned and ready to provide a foam blanket, which was not deployed.
Sector 1, coordinated by Colvin, was to continue damming operations at the fuel pond on the south side of the preexisting dam.
Sector 2 was downstream of where the diesel entered the tributary below the artifical dam. Sector 2’s objective was to construct a pond alongside the tributary south of Sector 1 to collect the contaminated water. An underflow dam would then be built to separate the water from the diesel fuel floating on the pool’s surface. Water would be drained from the bottom of the pool and return to the tributary. The remaining diesel fuel in the pond would be suctioned off. Haz Mat 50 and other fire department personnel directed by Mastersonville Fire Chief Matthew Shenk were assigned to this sector. Two backhoes from Mount Joy borough were dispatched to Sector 2 to help.
Sector 3’s objective was to assess the condition of Back Run. Incident Commander Brett Hamm, assistant chief of FDMJ, directed Susquehanna Rescue 84-1 to Back Run Road to assess contamination of Back Run itself. Under the direction of Susquehanna Fire Chief Joe Groft, personnel constructed two underflow dams just south of where the tributary empties into Back Run.
At Sector 1, backhoes continued to build up the dam. The flow of fuel oil from the base of the saturated earthen dam increased. The large quantity of diesel fuel in the preexisting pond and the accumulated material at Sector 1 generated significant fuel vapors. Air monitoring registered a lower explosive limit (LEL) for diesel of two ppm at the breach and registered no reading at Sector 1. Monitoring revealed benzene levels as high as five parts per million (ppm). SCBA was not warranted because of the low level and the fact that crews were not working in an enclosed area. According to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health Pocket Guide (1997), short-term exposure limits are five ppm over a time-weighted average of eight hours.
An engine and a tanker, originally located at the vehicle staging area, were repositioned on the northwest side of Sector 1 near the first pond and deployed foam lines. However, a foam blanket was not needed during the incident. Because resources were exhausted rapidly, the third-due haz-mat team, Hammer 20 of York County, was requested at 1039. Absorbent media were becoming saturated and needed to be replaced. Crews were exhausted not only from the workload but also from negotiating the rugged terrain. A third alarm struck at 1049 brought in volunteers from West Hempfield, Manheim, and Elizabethtown fire companies.
A suction truck prepares to remove diesel fuel from the Sector 2 underflow pools.
Approximately one hour into the incident, an ExxonMobil representative arrived, consulted with the haz mat sector officer, and coordinated the crews of the pipeline and commercial cleanup contractors.
Because of the rough terrain and the distances involved in this incident, two six-wheel-drive, all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) were obtained from a local farm equipment dealer for use at the scene. The ATVs were invaluable in expediting personnel and equipment transfer to the various sectors. Early in the incident, two Lancaster County Emergency Management Agency staff personnel responded. Randall S. Gockley, county emergency management coordinator, was appointed the public information officer. News media responded to the scene. They were staged and briefed at scheduled times and were permitted to shoot footage from an isolated vantage point.
Shortly before 1130 hours, the product flow from the pipeline ceased. While the active release had stopped, crews still had to manage the two ponds of diesel oil in Sector 1 and the seepage of diesel fuel to Sector 2 and prevent contamination of Sector 3. Because of the volume of water and diesel flowing downstream, a second underflow pond and dam was constructed in Sector 2. Officials considered constructing a pond upstream from Sector 1 to reduce the flow of water into Sector 2 but decided against it after evaluating what such an operation would entail.
Shortly after noon, additional pipeline officials and commercial cleanup representatives arrived and became part of the Remediation Sector, with which the operations branch officer held coordinated briefings. Backhoes continued building up the dam at Sector 1 to ensure its stability. By 1400 hours, cleanup vehicles were positioning, and some fire department personnel were released. By 1430 hours, the fire department presence was limited to Sectors 1 and 2, the Suppression Sector, as a precaution because of the amount of surface area of raw product and numerous pieces of heavy equipment operating. Fire department operations terminated completely by 2100 hours.
During briefings and the changeover from emergency operations to recovery and remediation, pipeline and cleanup officials praised the local units for their confinement work. No diesel got past Sector 2, and the work of the backhoes in Sector 1 had contained a substantial quantity of the fuel. Cleanup and remediation will take weeks and cost more than $1 million. Although there was a small fish kill, the local fire, haz-mat, and municipal personnel’s prompt actions prevented greater damage to the environment.
FACTORS FOR SUCCESS
Many factors contributed to the incident’s successful outcome. The preexisting pond and dam contained the material and delayed its spread. Emergency services were thus able to confine the material more readily. Rapid resource identification and procurement enabled crews to take advantage of the natural terrain. A structured incident command system enabled personnel to properly manage the incident.
Terrain. Although the terrain’s contours varied, the valley provided a natural conduit though which the diesel flowed. The initial artificial pond and preexisting earthen dam delayed product dispersion, furnishing a natural holding area for the accumulated material. This bought emergency crews time to obtain and deploy heavy equipment and other resources. The natural funneling of product also afforded crews time to set up defensive measures to prevent the product from entering the tributary uninhibited.
Emergency response. Before emergency services were on the scene, the pipeline company was contacted about the puncture and promptly initiated valve shutdown procedures. The pipeline flows west to east. When the call was made, shutdown procedures were initiated from a transfer station approximately 15 miles west of the incident. This was extremely important, as pipeline officials advised emergency crews that the product transmission was in transition from diesel fuel to gasoline. Most of the released material was diesel fuel oil. Toward the end of the release, there was a mixture of fuel oil and gasoline. In another half hour or so, straight gasoline would have been free flowing, presenting the incident commander with a new set of variables to consider and operate under.
At Sector 3, two additonal underflow dams were constructed, but no diesel fuel made it past Sector 2.
The fire departments’ defensive actions and the equipment available from the farmer enabled responders to construct a second dam before a large quantity of product entered the tributary. Also, a prompt response by local municipal public works personnel and vehicles allowed work crews to stay ahead of the spill.
Incident command. Unified incident command prevented freelancing and misuse of resources. The numerous agencies and the operational sectors were well-coordinated. The benefits of identified operational sectors and chargeable personnel proved invaluable to incident progress and accountability.
Training. The importance of personnel training cannot be over- stressed. All responders must be trained in hazardous materials according to Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) 1910.120. Although Pennsylvania is not an OSHA state, responders must comply with EPA 49 CFR Part 311, which reflects the OSHA standard. Most firefighters in the county meet the training competencies of the operations level. Because of this training, firefighters were able to confine the material through the practices learned. The Lancaster County Emergency Management Agency sponsors free hazardous-materials training, including annual refresher training, to all county responders. This incident reinforced the necessity of this training.
Equipment staging. In many instances, equipment staging can be a nightmare. The circumstances of this incident were not a problem for the incident commander. Strickler Road, the main access road to the scene, was bordered by flat farmland. Emergency apparatus, municipal vehicles, regulatory agency vehicles, media vans, and cleanup contractor vehicles were staged in an open area that did not affect the access and egress of incoming and outgoing vehicles. Equipment staging is sometimes overlooked at an incident and contributes to the “parade” formation.
Closeup of the pipeline puncture after the flow abated.
As well as the incident went, there are lessons to be learned. Some of the first responders had never encountered a pipeline incident, an incident involving such a large quantity of material, or an incident involving so many outside agencies. This incident, however, was a great learning experience for the incident commander down to the traffic control unit. The lessons learned at this incident can be applied to all types of emergency situations.
A pipeline crew excavates around the ruptured pipeline. The puncture is in the center of the pipeline.
Documentation. Documentation is an important part of any incident, especially a large-scale one such as this. In a large-scale incident, it is critical to document the incident command flowchart and the local and outside agencies present. There was no organized “sign-in” for nontraditional agencies such as pipeline representatives, state environmental officials, municipal officials, cleanup contractors, and the news media. As the cleanup process was organized, it was difficult to determine who was in charge of the pipeline group and who was in charge of the cleanup crews and the other agencies represented.
Documenting the scene is key, especially for an incident covering such a large area and numerous sectors. A drawing of the incident drafted at the scene was beneficial to the incident commander, who was isolated from the operations and could not see the sectors. The drawing offered a visual feel for what was happening and where. The illustration benefited the pipeline and cleanup crews in that they could see the various sector locations and their functions. A copier would have helped documentation, since the drawing had to be shared among the various agencies.
The following areas were also documented: the equipment used and for how long and materials that were damaged, destroyed, consumed, and procured. This information is important not only for general incident reporting reference but also for cost recovery and perhaps litigation purposes. Under state law, responsible parties are liable for all response costs incurred. How do you know what and whom to assess if you don’t keep track?
Accountability. Lancaster County has a recognized accountability system for the emergency services, but accountability for ancillary personnel must be ensured. This could have been extremely vital in this instance had the product been more volatile. The incident commander should document other organizations’ response, the individuals in charge, and their accountability systems.
Resource identification. Never in Lancaster County history had more than two haz-mat response teams been involved in a single incident. At the time the third team was dispatched, there was no resource list in place to determine its identity. Gockley, of the county emergency management agency, decided who should be called.
The construction of the underflow ponds and dams required PVC pipe. While the organizations on the scene were able to make do with what was in staging, a larger-diameter pipe was preferable. The piping inventory for the underflow dams was exhausted; a neighbor up the road even provided some rain spouting to Sector 3 to increase the capacity of the underflow dams. Had the tributary been larger or flowed a larger volume of water, we would have had to obtain more piping locally. The same applies to absorbent materials and booming mediums. It should be know in advance where and how they can be obtained in a timely manner.
FDMJ has a good rapport with the municipalities it serves. This proved beneficial when the call went out for heavy equipment. The local municipalities’ quick response with heavy equipment significantly contributed to the incident’s successful outcome. Do you know where to get such equipment? Do you know whom to call, even after business hours?
Accurate dispatch of incident type identification. Based on the information initially provided, the dispatcher determined the incident to be a natural gas leak and entered the appropriate code for that incident type into the computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system. The incident type code that the communications center uses in its CAD system, along with other specific information such as address and municipality, determines what the apppropriate equipment will be. The code for a natural gas leak dispatches fewer automatic initial resources than that of a hazardous-materials incident. As part of the county’s hazardous-materials automatic dispatch protocol, Haz Mat 2 is automatically due on all hazardous-materials incidents but not for a gas leak. Once the actual incident circumstances were determined, the haz-mat team was requested, but this delayed notification by 18 minutes. Although it did not significantly affect the results of this incident, lack of initial haz-mat team dispatch could be seriously detrimental in containing an incident.
Several circumstances arose throughout this incident that should be considered in other types of incidents.
Safety. Safety is first and foremost and was a primary concern of all sector officers and the incident commander. At Sector 1, a safety officer was assigned to watch the preexisting dam. Because of the seepage at the base, it was feared that the fuel oil was undermining the dam and that it might fail. Had the dam failed, the crews building the second dam would have been met by a wall of mud and diesel.
Deploying a rapid intervention team (RIT) near the dam in case of failure was discussed but not instituted. General safety was a concern in each sector because of the terrain. The safety of personnel working around heavy equipment and crews working near excavated holes was a concern. Sector 3 workers had to wade through a forested area with many tripping and puncture hazards.
Exposure. Because of the volume of diesel accumulated, exposure to its vapors and by-products was a concern. The air was monitored periodically throughout the operation for benzene and the diesel fuel LEL. Although the material’s flash point was high, a foam line was positioned as a precaution. Operations was concerned over the lack of foam concentrate on the scene and considered calling the county foam task force but opted not to. Had gasoline been pooled instead of diesel fuel, a foam blanket may have been necessary. Had this been the case, would there have been enough foam to sustain coverage during the incident? If not, where could it have been procured?
To the best of my knowledge, no claim was made for contaminated turnout gear. The fire department personnel involved did not wade through the diesel. They were able to take defensive actions without contaminating themselves. Those involved in the damming and underflow pool operations were outfitted with TyvekT suits and appropriate nitrile gloves and boots. The total bill for the emergency services response was $54,776.57 (for the equipment used). Because all of the responders were volunteers, no labor was charged. Cleanup officials reported their costs to repair the pipeline and remediate the entire site would be more than $1 million.
A coordinated incident command system, well-trained personnel, and interagency coordination all contributed to this operation’s successful outcome. However, there were still lessons to learn. An incident of this type may never happen again in Lancaster County. The general principles experienced, learned, and coordinated, however, can be applied in other routine and extraordinary situations. Regardless of whether it is a hazardous-materials incident or a five-story warehouse fire, the functions of incident command, firefighter safety, accountability, resource identification, and documentation would still apply.
ERIC G. BACHMAN, a 19-year veteran of the fire service, is deputy fire chief and former chief of the Eden Volunteer Fire/Rescue Department in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. He is the hazardous materials administrator for the County of Lancaster Emergency Management Agency and public information officer for the Local Emergency Planning Committee of Lancaster County. He is registered with the National Board on Fire Service Professional Qualifications as a fire officer I, hazardous materials technician, and hazardous materials incident commander. He has an associate’s degree in fire science and earned professional certification in emergency management through the state of Pennsylvania. He is also a volunteer firefighter with the Manheim (PA) Fire Department.