Opal residents return home after gas plant blast; gas flows diverted

2014-04-24T17:45:00Z 2014-04-24T17:57:04Z Opal residents return home after gas plant blast; gas flows divertedBy BENJAMIN STORROW Star-Tribune staff writer Casper Star-Tribune Online

Opal residents returned home Thursday, the day after a large explosion rocked a gas gathering hub in their small southwestern Wyoming town. 

A fire still burned at the facility Thursday afternoon, but the flames were contained, and air monitors showed it was safe for residents to come home, a spokesman for the facility said. Emergency personnel closed incoming and outgoing gas into the hub and were waiting for the fire to burn itself out.  

The cause of the explosion is unknown. 

No one was hurt Wednesday in the blast at Williams Partners' gas-gathering facility, a regional hub that connects natural gas produced in the Jonah and Pinedale fields to markets farther west. 

Production in the western Wyoming gas fields, among the largest in the nation, did not appear to be seriously hindered by the explosion. Gas streams were being diverted through other processing facilities in the region, industry analysts said. No wells were reported closed in the Jonah gas-gathering system as a result of the blast.

Smooth evacuation

Of more immediate concern was the human impact of the explosion. Town officials expressed awe that no one was injured in the blast and said an evacuation of the town's residents went as smoothly as could be expected.

Jane Broadhead, Opal town clerk, didn't hear the blast. A resident called to alert her. 

"I looked out the window, and sure enough there was a large fire," Broadhead said. "I'm not a first responder, so I was frightened."

She nonetheless hit the town's emergency siren and started collecting her list of emergency telephone numbers to alert town officials, residents and first responders. 

Lincoln County emergency personnel and the police department from neighboring Diamondville were on the scene quickly, Broadhead said. They went door-to-door telling residents they needed to leave and meet town officials at an emergency rendezvous point outside Opal. 

The gathering location had to be moved, said Opal Mayor Mary Hall. The initial location is close to the gas-gathering plant. Hall and other town officials decided to move the rendezvous point 3 miles east of town on U.S. Highway 30.

The mayor was at work at Quality Realty in Kemmerer when she received a call from emergency officials alerting her to the blast. She set off in her car immediately, eventually meeting residents on Highway 30. 

Gathering a crowd of around 30 residents by a cattle guard, Hall delivered the news they would not be able to go home for the night. 

The town's official population is 92, but the actual population is closer to 60. Many residents were at work and not in town when the blast occurred. Of those standing around the cattle guard, most were retired, she said. 

"I said 'Anyone who wants to go to Kemmerer can follow me.' A caravan of 10 to 12 cars followed me," Hall recalled. 

Williams paid for residents to spend the night at the Best Western in Kemmerer. Others were housed at the Little America hotel on I-80.

"It went rather smoothly. You couldn't ask for a better evacuation," Hall said. "The fact that there were no injuries was a blessing."

Both she and Broadhead said they were looking forward to heading home Thursday night.

"Perhaps I'll get some sleep," Broadhead said. 

Temporary flow diversion

The fire at a cryogenic train used to process natural gas collected from the production fields caused a temporary halt in gas flows through the Williams facility. The plant is connected to six pipelines serving customers in Nevada, California and throughout the west. 

The plant had seen gas streams of 922 million cubic feet a day the week before the explosion. The plant collected around 516 mmcf of gas before the blast Wednesday, according to Genscape, a Boston-based firm which monitors natural gas flows. Those streams fell to zero on Thursday, Genscape said. 

Opal is one of the most active natural gas hubs in the Rocky Mountain region, and accounts for 1.9 percent of total natural gas volumes traded nationally, said Genscape analyst Wei Chien.

"We are expecting that the field production that are usually processed by Opal plant will start to flow into other processing plants in the (next) few days. This definitely will put upward pressure on cash prices in the region," Chien wrote in an email to the Star-Tribune. "The plant is expected to come back online at a reduced capacity in a week or so. Thus, we don’t believe there will be any significant impact on long-term prices."

Enterprise Products Partners' Pioneer Processing Plant saw flows rise 684 mmcf Thursday -- a sign that much of the western Wyoming production was already being diverted, Chein said. 

Rick Rainey, an Enterprise spokesman, confirmed the move, noting the gas gathering system that connects wells in the Jonah and Pinedale fields to processing hubs in the region are interconnected. He said the Jonah gathering system, a complex web of pipelines linking wells to processing plants, showed no closed wells because of the blast. 

At the Opal hub, Williams officials were waiting for the fire to burn itself out, said George Angerbauer, a company spokesman. An investigation team has been assembled and will begin work once the flames are extinguished, he said.

Reach energy reporter Benjamin Storrow at 307-335-5344 or benjamin.storrow@trib.com. Follow him on Twitter @bstorrow

Copyright 2015 Casper Star-Tribune Online. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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