PART 1:
AFTER
THE
EXPLOSION

Ivy Lane was a quiet cul-de-sac built on a hill in Center Township, Beaver County. Its new neighbor is a pipeline company. (Andrew Rush/Post-Gazette)

They chose Ivy Lane because it was peaceful. Then the pipeline exploded.

  • PART 1
  • PART 2
  • INTERACTIVE MAP

Sue Michael didn’t sleep at all on the night of Sept. 10, 2018. Her chihuahua, Boue, kept scratching — not his usual four scratches asking to be lowered from the bed. He pawed at her neck and, for the first time, her face. She’d have to call the vet.

Rain clattered at her window at 742 Ivy Lane — a dead-end, quarter-mile spoke off Brodhead Road in Center Township, Beaver County. It had been pouring for three days, and her backyard had turned into a marsh. Around 4:30 a.m., Sue gave up and got out of bed.

It was pitch-dark outside, but Ivy Lane was stirring.

Inside the ranch home at 727 Ivy Lane, Barbara Goblick poured water into her Keurig, preparing for her usual early work shift. It was her 61st birthday.

A few doors down in 705 Ivy Lane, Don Lehocky sat down to read the news.

Across the street, Amy and Ryan Curley pulled out of the driveway, leaving their sons Micah, 4, and Nathan, 2, and Ryan’s mother asleep. The couple was to report to the hospital in Sewickley by 5 a.m. for a scheduled C-section, ready to welcome their third child.

Driving down Brodhead Road, they saw a light glowing ominously in the sky.

“Something’s on fire,” Amy said.

‘Plane crashes, meteors’

The Revolution pipeline exploded before 5 a.m. on September 10, 2018, painting the whole neighborhood orange. (Credit: Don Lehocky)

Of the 800 calls that came into Beaver County 911 that morning, only a few guessed it right: A natural gas pipeline had exploded.

Callers reported plane crashes, meteors, power plant explosions. No one at the fire department or at the township knew there was gas inside the new Revolution pipeline — a 40-mile link between shale gas wells in Beaver and Butler counties and a gas processing plant in Washington County.

For more than a year, residents of Ivy Lane had watched as a string of contractors tried to jam a 24-inch-diameter tube into the steep hillside behind their block. The company that built it, Energy Transfer, had still been moving dirt days before the blast.

Even so, most of the neighbors didn’t know the company’s name — and none of them had been told that, a few days earlier, the Texas-based energy giant had begun to pack the Revolution pipeline with gas in preparation for its commercial launch.

In the year that followed, the explosion would send ripples through the oil and gas industry. It would become the target of an investigation by Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro. It would send a Goldman Sachs-funded oil and gas driller into bankruptcy. It would compel the state to strip environmental permitting authority from the local conservation district.

On Ivy Lane, it would bind the street together and then cut fissures into that bond. Energy Transfer would become the neighborhood villain and, for some residents, their lifeline. It would also become their neighbor.

But that morning, no one on Ivy Lane had any idea how it would unfold. What the neighbors knew on Sept. 10 was that they had to flee.

‘We gotta get out of here’

“I didn’t anticipate that I’d be standing in my mother’s room preparing for us to die,” Sue Michael said. “You don’t think about those things until you think a jet is ready to crash into your house.” (Andrew Rush/Post-Gazette)

The first time the house shook, Sue Michael was bending over her mother, preparing to adjust the bedridden woman. Then came a noise so loud Sue thought that a plane was headed for her window. She fell over her mother to shield her from impact. Moments later, the second boom hit and lit up the window. Sue was sure they were about to die.

At 715 Ivy Lane, Ryan Boring’s thoughts raced from one apocalypse to another. He remembered it was Sept. 10, too close to the anniversary of 9/11 to be coincidental.

“Did we get nuked?” he panicked.

At 752 Ivy Lane, Joyce Rosati jumped out of bed and yelled for her niece Renee. She needed to get the 11-year-old girl out of the house before the tornado swept them up or the radiation from the nuclear plant rushed over them.

Joyce’s legs were cramped. She couldn’t run.

“It’s the pipeline. We gotta get out of here,” her husband, Sam, screamed as he pulled on a pair of pants.

Just up the hill at 750 Ivy Lane, Tom Demarco shook his wife, Toni, awake. Without her hearing aids, she missed the explosion. When Toni opened her eyes, her blackout blinds were silhouetted by the fire raging outside the window. They ran outside in time to see Joyce, Sam and Renee Rosati with their two dogs in tow. Tom grabbed a rope from his house and gave it to the Rosatis to use as a leash.

Joyce Rosati couldn’t muster a word. The roof of her house was already aflame. They kept running.

Another neighbor up the street offered them a car to escape.

“It’s all gone,” Sam said before he got in the borrowed Nissan Altima and drove his family away from the inferno.

Joyce’s beloved horses were still in the barn. Three cats and a third dog burned inside the house.

‘Shippingport blew up’

Ryan Boring could feel the heat. Or maybe it was the adrenaline racing through his body. He was yelling for his sons to get out of the house.

When 13-year-old Hunter sprinted to the porch, Ryan caught him by the back of his T-shirt and yanked him back inside. If it was the Beaver Valley nuclear plant that had blown, he reasoned, the air outside must be thick with radiation.

They’d have to move fast. Ryan’s wife, Heather, pressed their puppy, Waffles, to her chest and made her way to the car. Hunter and Kyle followed, barefoot.

The roar was deafening.

As the Boring family pulled out of the driveway, Ryan laid into the horn to wake the neighbors. Just then, another fireball shot into the sky, and they sped away.

With some distance from the fire, Ryan remembered the terrible rotten-egg odor he’d smelled while driving past Shippingport the night before. Just in case, he’d left a message Sunday night for the Center Township supervisors. Now, watching the sky a few hours later, he said: “Shippingport blew up. I didn’t call in time.”

A new life amid the wreckage

Lisa Gonzalez was 3 when the pipeline exploded. The fire left a lasting impression on her. “Why it come to the house?” Lisa asked last year, eavesdropping as her mother, Yolanda Gonzalez, described their escape on September 10, 2018. “I don’t know, baby,” Yolanda said. (Andrew Rush/Post-Gazette)

Amy Curley, en route to the hospital to have her baby, figured the predawn call from her 16-year-old neighbor was a butt dial. She didn’t pick up until the second try.

When he told her the woods were on fire, it still didn’t click that the fireball she saw minutes earlier was behind Ivy Lane. Then Frankie said he didn’t know if the Curleys’ kids were out of the house and Amy’s heart dropped.

Her husband pulled the car over. Amy called her mother-in-law.

No answer.

She dialed again.

At that moment, her mother-in-law was driving the family’s minivan through the smoke on Ivy Lane and into the darkness with no headlights. She hadn’t yet figured out how to turn them on after corralling two kids and three dogs in the car.

When she finally called back, Amy regained her breath.

“The house can burn,” she said. “Now we need to go have this baby.”

As doctors prepped Amy for surgery, her husband texted with neighbors. At 7:50 a.m., Amy delivered the newest resident of a neighborhood that was now forever changed: Rowan Curley.

YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND

Don Lehocky keeps a backpack stocked with emergency supplies hanging on the back of a kitchen chair. Inside is a First Aid kit, pepper spray, a marker, roll of toilet paper, a poncho. He adds to it frequently. “I’m not gonna move,” he said. “Some people are. Some people are scared to be here.” (Andrew Rush/Post-Gazette)

You’re not supposed to fight a pipeline fire. It burns out by itself when the gas is gone. The volunteer firefighters who arrived at Ivy Lane within minutes of the blast knew their job would be taking care of the people.

They called an ambulance for Sue Michael’s mother. They noodled a horse trailer down the narrow road and led out the Rosatis’ horses — spared by a shift in the wind. The Red Cross was setting up an evacuation shelter at the Center Township Volunteer Fire Department.

It would be a week before the residents could return to their homes, they were told by Energy Transfer representatives, who had set up an information table inside the firehall. Company officials were calling pet-friendly hotels and writing checks for the inconvenience. There would be a news conference.

Sam Rosati walked into the firehall, alone and livid.

He knew the ground had been moving around the pipeline, and so did Energy Transfer, he charged. He’d told the company about a slip a few days before the explosion. He was told it had been fixed, he said.

“My kids live here. That pipeline’s right behind my house,” Don Lehocky lectured Matt Bearrow, an Energy Transfer community relations representative.

“Do you have kids?” Don asked him.

“No.”

“Well, then you don’t understand.”

Sue Michael was missing all of it. She had parked on a side street facing the ambulance that drove her mother to the firehall. She sat in the car with her two dogs and cockatiel, and she sobbed.

Stuck in the pipeline web

The path of an Energy Transfer Corp. pipeline can be seen in this photo taken on Wednesday, December 19, 2018, in Center. (Andrew Rush/Post-Gazette)

Eventually, crying would give way to anger.

The residents of Ivy Lane would spend months trying to unwind their street from the sprawling infrastructure of southwestern Pennsylvania’s gas revolution.

But their street’s place in the web was cemented. It remains, as countless other welcoming or unwilling communities, a part of the nation’s shale gas renaissance — the thousands of fracked gas wells peppering Pennsylvania, the mammoth Shell petrochemical plant being built on the banks of the Ohio River three miles north of the quiet cul-de-sac, new power plants in the U.S., and tanker ships loaded with Pennsylvania-drawn natural gas liquids bound for manufacturing plants in Europe.

There are hundreds of miles of pipelines in Pennsylvania — the length of a million Ivy Lanes.

Some are in rural areas without a house in sight for miles, others in densely packed neighborhoods. The pipelines supply heat and gas for cooking and gasoline for cars. They rarely blow up.

Such statistics would prove no comfort to this traumatized neighborhood.

No one would be able to say they were being hysterical or placate them with glossy pamphlets about the latest pipeline technology. That technology had failed them.

Return to Ivy Lane

The remnants of a garage on the former Rosati property as photographed in December 2018. (Andrew Rush/Post-Gazette)

The Rosati family's property before the explosion had a house, a large car garage and horse barn. The fire destroyed the house and garage and the rest was demolished to clear the land. (Andrew Rush/Post-Gazette)

Sam Rosati built his house at the end of Ivy Lane with his brother more than 30 years ago. (Credit: Federal Energy Regulatory Commission)

Word came around 2 p.m. on Sept. 10, 2018, that Ivy Lane had gotten the all-clear. The neighbors drove down the block slowly and were told to wait outside as firefighters wanded their homes with gas detectors. A group herded together and — pulled by some irresistible force — began to make its way down the long driveway to the Rosati property.

It was quiet. The ground was soaked and smoking at the same time. All that remained of the house that Sam Rosati had built with his brother 34 years ago was an ash outline. Charred cars and trees turned to sticks on one side and a totally intact horse barn and trampoline on the other.

When Yolanda Gonzalez’s children returned from the scene, they were stone-faced.

“Everything’s gone, Mom,” they reported. “Everything in that house is gone.”

The alliance

“I remember looking at my house saying, ‘Goodbye house. I don’t know if I’m ever gonna see you again,” Karen Gdula said. (Andrew Rush/Post-Gazette)

If the explosion was the big wound, the weeks after brought a stream of salt grains aggravating the healing process. The quiet cul-de-sac turned into a high-traffic attraction.

A sign welcoming Ivy Lane residents to the second annual block party in 1993. (Credit: Karen Gdula)

A local environmental group came to document the destruction. Tom Demarco called the police on a man carrying a bag with a drone inside. For weeks, the street had a guard posted at the entrance.

It had been a decadeslong tradition on Ivy Lane to welcome fall with a block party. In 2018, on a day’s notice, the residents held a “safety meeting” instead. They assembled in one of the neighbors’ backyards over hot dogs and pop.

At the meeting, Ryan Boring took the lead.

A tall, intense-looking man often mistaken for a military veteran, he began with a loose mission statement about pushing for safeguards. But he could sense that people needed to vent first. He needed to vent, too.

The Borings hadn’t come home the night after the explosion. They stayed in a hotel paid for by Energy Transfer, but Ryan couldn’t sleep. He couldn’t get past the noises — the air system kicking on, the ice maker in the hallway. The family stayed for several days. Ryan’s youngest son kept asking when he could go home, but he didn’t want to sleep there. Just visit.

Other neighbors took turns telling their own evacuation stories. They compared notes about conversations with Matt Bearrow, the main Energy Transfer contact who had gone door to door in the days after the blast, handing out gift cards and the company’s hotline number.

The point of the meeting was to standardize expectations. But the difficult question wasn’t even what could they get from Energy Transfer. It was whether could they agree on what they wanted.

After the explosion, Ivy Lane became a high traffic attraction, leaving residents cramped and peeved. (Credit: Chuck Belczyk)

Barbara Goblick, whose house developed several large cracks in the plaster, suspected some of her neighbors were being unrealistic.

“There’s people who want them to come in and buy the whole neighborhood,” she said. “Well, a lot of us don’t want to sell.”

Neighbors talked freely about new anti-anxiety pills they’d started taking, but no one was eager to commit that to writing.

After a few hours, the central question about Energy Transfer — which Don Lehocky shorthanded as, “Do we want to develop something and go against them, somehow?” — was answered. They would try.

The group came up with a name, the “Ivy Lane Alliance,” which would later be changed to the “Ivy/Pine Alliance,” with the hopes of capturing neighbors on a side street.

Before they adjourned, one of the neighbors suggested there was one thing missing from their plans: Karen Gdula.

THE LETTER

Karen Gdula grew up at 730 Ivy Lane, the house she now shared with her new husband, Tom. She’d spent the bulk of her career as a project manager at MSA, the Cranberry-based company whose gas detectors firefighters waved in her house after the pipeline explosion. She was meticulous, friendly, retired and curious — in other words, a natural leader for the alliance. And she took to it with gusto.

By the time the group had scheduled its second meeting a month later, helicopter noise had become part of the soundtrack of Ivy Lane.

Energy Transfer helicopters surveyed the damage and lifted bags filled with pipeline fragments. Network helicopters provided video footage for the news. In two attempts that became an engineering sideshow in late October, a giant “sky crane” helicopter installed an electric transmission tower where the old one had collapsed in the fire.

Helicopters became part of the soundtrack of Ivy Lane after the explosion. When heavy machinery was barred from the ground, helicopters took over jobs like seeding the ground. (Credit: Karen Gdula)

Karen was recording all of it in her notebook — how on Sept. 17, two investigators from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection showed up unannounced asking questions about Energy Transfer’s contractors and previous landslides; how a week later, the pipeline firm sent a brochure titled “Facts about Pipeline Safety in Your Community.”

“Two homeowners count 13 curiosity seekers in 60 minutes,” she documented in one entry. “They turn around in our driveways.”

In early November, neighbors piled into Karen’s pink-carpeted living room, surrounded by needlepoints, uplifting messages, and a picture of Karen and Tom’s wedding a year before.

This was a strategy meeting.

Don Lehocky said he’d uncovered an alarming trend of safety violations on Energy Transfer projects. By this time, he was devoting at least an hour a day to researching the company, reposting anti-pipeline causes from across the country.

Ryan Boring had already reached out to some lawyers. He, Karen and Don — who had jokingly dubbed themselves “the generals” — drafted a letter to send to Energy Transfer.

If the neighbors voted to send it, Ryan’s would be the sole signature, he said.

“I said it to them and myself many times, ‘If we stand here and do nothing, and this happens in the next neighborhood and a 5-year-old girl gets killed, that’s gonna be on my conscience that I said nothing.’”

In the end, there was a paper to sign to secure people’s buy-in. It wasn’t legally binding, but more of a loyalty pledge. Most signed on the spot; a few others asked to think about it.

Cindy and Steve Almendarez didn’t feel as impacted by the pipeline explosion as their neighbors closer to the blast. “I certainly don’t have any trauma to report,” Cindy said. “But if they were going to form an alliance, numbers would be important. And we would be involved from that aspect.” (Andrew Rush/Post-Gazette)

Ryan Curley was on the fence. Despite the drama that the explosion added to the birth of their third son, the Curleys didn’t feel as if they’d suffered.

The Rosatis lost everything, Amy Curley said. The Demarcos had the siding of their house blistered in the fire and were negotiating a buyout.

“When I was signing the thing to go to the gas company, I felt I was doing it more for them,” she said.

The letter was sent a few days later by certified mail. Energy Transfer didn’t respond by the deadline. When the Alliance extended the deadline, the company blew that one, too.

The lawyers that helped Ivy Lane residents compose their letter suggested the Alliance look elsewhere for legal representation. In the weeks that followed, the group found no one willing to take up their case. They had no physical damage, and they were not displaced. That they felt wronged made for a fuzzy legal argument, they were told.

The two families closest to the explosion were either gone or on the way out.

The Rosatis were living in a rental property in Hopewell while they searched for land big enough to care for their horses.

The Demarcos were in the process of negotiating an agreement that would allow Energy Transfer prolonged access to their land, and they were talking about a buyout. If that time came, the couple knew there would be a nondisclosure agreement attached.

The usually chatty Tom Demarco grew quiet.

NEW NEIGHBORS

In late October, environmental regulators forbade Energy Transfer from repairing the Revolution pipeline until the company could prove that it could stabilize the hillside behind Ivy Lane. The company couldn’t use heavy machinery on the right-of-way and was seeding the slope by dropping pellets from helicopters.

“Nothing like a Sunday before Christmas listening to helicopters,” Chuck Belzyk of 731 Ivy Lane fumed on Facebook.

That same week, a house sold on Ivy Lane — the first sale since the explosion. A renovated three-bedroom ranch on the corner of Ivy and Pine, about 2,000 feet from the landslide, sold for $236,000.

For a few weeks, it was the highest-valued property on the block. Then, in early January, Energy Transfer bought the Demarcos’ house and property for $360,000 and paid the Rosatis $400,000 for their charred land. The most valuable real estate on the street now belonged to the pipeline company.

The buzz in the neighborhood spread that Energy Transfer had bought the land to reroute the pipeline onto flatter ground, which would also bring it closer to the homes on Ivy Lane.

“It’s hard to describe it to people so they understand,” Sue Michael said. “My life has changed now. My life is in limbo. If I stay, I’ll always have that fear in the back of my mind. If it would happen again, I’d never forgive myself.” (Andrew Rush/Post-Gazette)

“I have to move,” Sue Michael declared after word of the sales became public.

For years, Sue — who directs operations a veterans clinic by day and tends to her mother in hospice during the evenings and weekends — has had a spreadsheet of her finances that spit out her retirement date: 2025. The 62-year-old was on track to pay off her house in two years, and, in the fall of 2018, she was getting ready to renovate the bathroom and a game room.

The explosion threw everything into limbo.

In her spreadsheet, she calculated that buying another house that meets all of her needs would push back retirement by about three years.

Energy Transfer’s inability to get the hillside to stop sliding was proving to be a mixed bag for the neighborhood. On the one hand, it was further eroding trust in the company’s environmental performance. On the other, it meant residents could go to sleep each night knowing there’s no high-pressure gas flowing below them.

Sue called it “my stay of execution.”

Ryan Boring was still having trouble sleeping, especially when it rained.

“I don’t want to be scared to live in my own house,” Ryan said one day in January 2019. “To me, that hillside is never gonna be shored up [enough].”

The Borings’ house on Ivy Lane seemed like a diamond in the rough when they first bought it. After a 13-year engagement, the couple tied the knot on the porch three years ago.

Since the explosion, Ryan’s wife, Heather, has been desperate to leave. When a fire burned inside a house in Aliquippa in January 2019, she called him in a panic asking if she should take the kids and leave. Evacuate, he said.

Just after New Year’s in 2019, Karen Gdula noticed new survey stakes with pink flags on the former Demarco and Rosati properties. This must be the new route of the Revolution, she thought. A few days later, another set of stakes appeared, with blue and white flags attached.

Another pipeline was coming.

Story by Anya Litvak: alitvak@post-gazette.com @AnyaLitvak
Photos and Videos by Andrew Rush arush@post-gazette.com @AndrewRush

PART 2:
BETWEEN
TWO
PIPELINES

The red house on the hill is now owned by Energy Transfer, which is rerouting its Revolution pipeline to bring it onto flatter ground and closer to the homes on Ivy Lane. Another pipeline, built by another company, now crosses its path near the explosion site. (Andrew Rush/Post-Gazette)

Coming to terms with two pipelines pulled Ivy Lane neighbors in different directions.

The news hit the neighborhood like a brick.

Ivy Lane, the Center Township cul-de-sac where a gas pipeline exploded in September 2018, was getting another pipeline.

This one would be laid on the other side of the street, and, just a few hundred feet from the site of the blast, the new pipeline and the old ruptured one would cross.

After experiencing one of the most catastrophic failures in the decadelong build out of Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale industry, the community on Ivy Lane in Beaver County was figuring out — both communally and individually — what it meant to piece together their disrupted lives.

A flagstone in front of Karen Gdula’s childhood home Ivy Lane is carved with the message: “Count your blessings.” (Andrew Rush/Post-Gazette)

Sue Michael and her neighbor Karen Gdula had joined together in a neighborhood alliance to advocate for pipeline safety. They worked to extract information from and about Energy Transfer, the company that built the damaged pipe. More broadly, they hoped to regain some feeling of agency after what the residents of Ivy Lane perceived as an invasion.

Whatever progress they thought they were making was suddenly jumbled by the introduction of another pipeline — a 12-inch-wide natural gas link to the Shell petrochemical plant in nearby Potter. This one was being built by National Fuel, a New York-based gas infrastructure firm.

By late February 2019, the woods behind Karen’s house at 730 Ivy Lane were cracking with the sound of falling trees.

“I’m so sorry,” she said — to no one, to the trees — as she stood in her backyard watching a large dirt path being carved for the new pipeline.

Sue had been spending more and more time collecting clips about pipeline disasters and had been in touch with landowners and activists across the state in Chester County waging their own battle against Energy Transfer over its Mariner East pipelines. That project was being constructed to deliver natural gas liquids to Eastern Pennsylvania and — because of a series of well-publicized sinkholes during construction — had inspired the ire of residents, regulators and local politicians.

National Fuel clearing the right of way for its new pipeline in July 2019. (Credit: Karen Gdula)

The two neighbors wanted to harness the same forces for Ivy Lane.

Sue Michael began using the term “sacrifice zone,” which is how environmental groups and pipeline safety advocates refer to areas that would be harmed in the event of a pipeline accident. The phrase — which is rooted in environmental policy — is understood to mean that those inside the zone had no choice in the matter.

“If Energy Transfer were to have another problem, our fear is that it would trigger the National Fuel pipeline. And then we would have a blast,” she reasoned.

While Karen concerned herself with extracting details from the pipeline companies, Sue decided she would go after public officials.

She contacted everyone she could think of: state and federal pipeline regulators; her U.S. representative, Conor Lamb, D-Mt. Lebanon; Beaver County District Attorney David Lozier; Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa.; and Gov. Tom Wolf.

Some agencies referred her to other agencies. The politicians didn’t call back.

Sue kept pressing to talk to Mr. Wolf, who she believed could single-handedly cancel the ruptured Revolution pipeline. “I’m serious. I want a call from the governor,” she’d plead with whomever would answer the phone in his office.

The more she called and wrote to people in charge, the more she became convinced that those people didn’t exist.

“It’s layer upon layer upon layer of government, [and] no one really has complete authority. Everybody has a piece of this,” she said.

She had a point — the Revolution pipeline had slipped through a regulatory patchwork filled with gaps.

At the state level, Energy Transfer presented the high-pressure pipeline as a transmission facility, a description that ensured it would be permitted by the local conservation district instead of the state Department of Environmental Protection. To federal pipeline safety regulators, the company said the Revolution pipeline was a gathering line, eluding stricter requirements.

None of these agencies, nor the townships that eventually hosted the pipe, had a say in whether the route was the safest one.

Karen, the ‘straight man’

“We stick to the facts. We don’t do the ‘I hate pipelines’ discussion.” (Andrew Rush/Post-Gazette)

In March, Karen Gdula made her first appearance during an anti-oil-and-gas industry tour.

A bus with a Yahoo News reporter and a few environmental group representatives picked her up and drove to an overlook on Bunker Hill Road, where Karen told them the story of the pipeline explosion while overlooking the scar carved into the ground.

She reprised the talk on another tour for Pitt environmental students. In April, she traveled to Harrisburg with the Better Path Coalition, which advocates for a quick transition from fossil fuels, to read her story before Auditor General Eugene DePasquale.

The groups she was connecting with, such as Beaver County Marcellus Awareness Community and Citizens to Protect the Ambridge Reservoir, were highlighting the link between the Revolution and National Fuel pipelines — really, all oil and gas pipelines and all oil and gas wells — and the petrochemical industry, climate change and plastics pollution.

They were fighting against the Shell ethane cracker being built in Potter and the handful of other such facilities that industry officials hoped would follow. Industry supporters liked to dismiss them as out-of-town, out-of-touch radicals.

Karen Gdula was there as the “straight man.” She was not political, and her message was all about safety — generic and unobjectionable. Pipelines shouldn’t be that close to homes, she argued.


Karen has collected photos — her own and clipped from other sources — in two albums documenting the explosion and its aftermath. (Credit: Anya Litvak)

There’s something about Karen that’s instantly endearing. Her golden hair, the flowery tops, the raspy voice, and the way everything she says seems like prized information extracted through persistence, charm and military-style record-keeping.

When Karen spoke to Energy Transfer — and increasingly, the company would call only her with updates — she spoke for the neighborhood.

Everyone appreciated what Karen was doing, but for some Ivy Laners, it was hard to envision what impact the effort might have.

“I just don’t see the point of investing myself in something that [is] a much bigger thing,” Amy Curley said in March, while Micah and Nathan watched “Power Rangers” on the living room couch at 722 Ivy Lane and the baby, Rowan, napped.

The family’s French bulldog mix, Sophie, was sitting in her usual place on a pillow near the window — the same window where Amy’s mother-in-law had found the boys quietly staring at the fire the night of the explosion. Micah, 5, calls it “fire bullets raining from the sky.”

Amy wasn’t sure that going up against this pipeline was what it meant to work for change.

The change would have to be bigger — “a societal change” — not about where in Beaver County you would put a pipeline, but how to shift the entire energy profile of the country. Even that possibility gave her pause. Oil and gas had brought jobs to the Pittsburgh region and revitalized chunks of forsaken steel ruins.

Maybe, she wondered, it’s unfair to argue “you can’t have this because there’s a chance that something will go wrong.”

“I still have a gas stove and gas heat,” she added. “We’re part of it, too.”

By the spring, Ryan Boring, the one-time face of the Alliance, had faded into the background. He said he was out of town a lot, coaching his son’s baseball team. Over time, he stopped returning calls.

‘Good relationship with both pipelines’

The path of a National Fuel pipeline photographed in August 2019 in Center Township. This 4.5-mile link to the Shell cracker plant in Potter will cross the Revolution pipeline close to the explosion site. (Andrew Rush/Post-Gazette)

A DEP-imposed lull in construction of the Revolution pipeline, followed by environmental regulators suspending all new permits for Energy Transfer in February, had allowed those who wanted to put the situation out of their minds the luxury of doing so.

That was Barbara Goblick’s take on the state of the group in May. She’d become Karen’s right hand at the Ivy/Pine Alliance.

By that time, the group had succeeded in getting the Center Township supervisors to arrange for both Energy Transfer and National Fuel to appear at township meetings each month.

Although Barbara didn’t share Karen’s optimism, she made it a point to attend the meetings. She wrote letters to regulators and posed as a photographer from the New York Times snapped what seemed like hundreds of shots to get a portrait of her looking lost in thought.

She did it, in part, to feel like she’s done everything she could. And, in part, she didn’t want to let Karen down.

A helicopter replenishes its bucket with mulch to spread over the hill behind Ivy Lane in December 2018. (Credit: Karen Gdula)

By the summer, Karen seemed pleased with how many of the residents’ concerns were being heard.

The alliance had sharpened its focus on the close intersection between the Revolution and National Fuel pipelines, asking the companies to bury them deeper and farther apart than required by law. The Revolution pipeline was only 3 feet underground when it burst. Even a corpse gets buried deeper, Ryan Boring liked to say.

Karen was waging a diplomatic battle as she worked to ensure that the companies knew she was keeping up with regulatory reports about National Fuel’s construction and Energy Transfer’s violations. But she also made sure to thank each company for small accommodations.

“Right now, we have a good working relationship with both pipelines,” she said with visible pride. An Energy Transfer representative even told her that he felt Ivy Lane residents had been kind and made him feel welcome.

That was decidedly not Sue Michael’s goal.

“I will not make them feel welcome. They’re not welcome here,” she declared.

‘I need a new plan’

Sue stopped attending the township meetings by the summer, seeing little meaning in the updates that were being doled out at that point.

It didn’t matter to her when trucks would be driving down her street. They’re polite enough; they move to the side when she’s passing. The sight of pipeline workers grilling their lunch in the driveway of the Demarco family’s former home had seemed so jarring once. Now, it wasn’t a big deal.

It wasn’t the daily inconveniences that grieved her, but the bigger indignities.

During a private meeting that Energy Transfer hosted for Ivy Lane residents in June to officially announce that the pipeline would be rerouted uphill onto the former Demarco property, Sue couldn’t get past the company’s representatives calling the explosion an “incident.”

She was told it was a corporate term.

“It was an explosion!” she said.

“I will never feel safe. I will never. I will lay down at night and wonder,” said Sue Michael. (Andrew Rush/Post-Gazette)

Sue resented the chitchat at the beginning of these meetings, and the handshakes exchanged between people who have to live next to a pipeline that once exploded and those whose job it is to sell them on how safe that pipeline is.

“I do not suffer fools,” she said later. “I’ve had my life planned out here. Now I need a new plan.”

As the summer wore on, she’d consulted with four real estate agents about putting her house on the market. All of them said it would be a hard sell. To make the inside of her home more attractive, Sue decided to start the renovations that she had put on hold after the explosion.

Her goal was to be out before the Energy Transfer line is reactivated.

She was once again being kept awake at night by her dog, this one a new rescue that she just couldn’t resist.

The animals bring her comfort, Sue said, and her mother likes it when the dogs sit on her lap and she strokes their fur. So much of her mother’s time now is spent sleeping, confused or anxious about things in the house that it’s nice to see her enjoying something.

“Sometimes, I have to look at her picture on the wall to remember what she was like,” she said.

Mudslides

The site of a natural gas pipeline explosion seen here on Thursday, Oct. 18, 2018, in Center Twp. The Revolution pipeline, 24-inch line owned by Energy Transfer Corp., exploded on Sept. 10, 2018 possibly caused by a landslide. (Andrew Rush/Post-Gazette)

On the one-year anniversary of the explosion, Karen Gdula invited alliance members and friends to her house for a gathering. They celebrated Barbara Goblick’s birthday and tried not to dwell on the pipeline talk.

Karen typed out a page-long summary of what the alliance has accomplished in the past year and displayed it on a stand for guests to see. At the top of the list, she wrote: “National Fuel – TWENTY FEET deep at the crossing. WooHoo!!”

With Barbara’s blessing, Karen prepared a signature drink: the mudslide. Rum, coffee liqueur and cream, ironically sweet.

Sue didn’t come.

By late fall, Sue said she was living with such unsustainable anxiety that she decided to take a break from the decision-making. She stopped looking for new homes.

“Everything is in God’s hands,” she said.

Another way of saying that might be that the pipelines are coming no matter what. Karen has always accepted this premise and tailored her tactics accordingly.

“I’ve actually had quite a few people say to me, ‘You’re doing it the right way. You’re not going out there protesting.’ [State Rep.] Josh Kail and [U.S. Rep.] Conor Lamb told me that,” she said. “We stick to the facts. We don’t do the ‘I hate pipelines’ discussion.”

Barbara Goblick, who lives with her mother, also Barbara Goblick, tries to go to as many events to promote the Alliance’s objectives as she can. Sometimes, she gets frustrated. “Can’t somebody else go to the meeting? Can’t you give me a break?” (Andrew Rush/Post-Gazette)

Because she’s kept her expectations nonexistent, Barbara Goblick has felt no defeat.

“The fact that Energy Transfer is talking to us — hey, that’s a win,” she said. “The fact that [National Fuel’s] pipe is 20 feet in the ground, that’s phenomenal.”

The National Fuel pipeline is now packed with inert gas and waiting for the Shell petrochemical plant to be completed in the next year or two.

Barbara is not at all confident that their efforts played a part in National Fuel’s decision to dig that deep. Maybe the bedrock needed to ground the pipeline was just that deep. No matter. It’s something, and she’s happy to put it in the win column.

What she doesn’t know is if this sense of momentum will be the comfort she needs when Energy Transfer recommissions the Revolution pipeline.

On January 3, regulators fined Energy Transfer an unprecedented $30.6 million for the Revolution explosion and, in the same breath, lifted the permit hold, which allows the pipeline company to begin the process of getting Revolution back online.

“The day they turn that back on — I don’t know,” Barbara said. “Am I going to be a disastrous nervous wreck at work? I don’t know.

“I’m not looking forward to that day.”

“There was a positive outcome to the explosion,” Karen Gdula and Tom Coates wrote in their annual holiday letter to friends and family. “It brought the neighborhood closer together. 2018 was a year we will not forget!” (Andrew Rush/Post-Gazette)

Neither is Karen Gdula. For all the progress she feels has been made, she and her husband recently began mapping out escape routes. They can’t go through the woods because there’s a pipeline there. They can’t run in the opposite direction because there’s another pipeline on the hill. They think they’ve identified a path through neighbors’ backyards.

She’s packed a “bug-out bag” in case of another emergency evacuation.

Don Lehocky keeps his camo-patterned bag on the back of his kitchen chair. He adds to it often, most recently tossing in some parachute cord and a water purification tool.

Barbara Goblick has stacked her house with rolled-up bags for quick packing and keeps a portable litter box on hand.

Sue Michael had been adamant that she doesn’t need to prepare because she expected to be out of Ivy Lane when Energy Transfer’s pipeline starts flowing again.

But in the fall, she started packing an emergency bag. She hadn’t heard about the DEP lifting the permit ban because Sue’s mother had been taking up much of her time.

“She’s not long with us; it’s day to day now,” Sue said in early January.

As for moving, she said she’s decided to wait until she feels more sure of her decision.

“Right now, I’m in my home, [and] I’m going to be there tomorrow,” Sue said.

Story by Anya Litvak: alitvak@post-gazette.com @AnyaLitvak
Photos and Videos by Andrew Rush arush@post-gazette.com @AndrewRush

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