Soaring flames kept a major natural gas plant in southwestern Wyoming closed on Thursday, affecting fuel supplies across the West.
The fire followed an explosion Wednesday afternoon at one of the five natural-gas processing units at a Williams Cos. plant near Opal, Wyo. About 40 workers immediately left the plant, shutting off incoming and outgoing pipes on the way out. No one was injured.
The entire 88-acre town of Opal was evacuated Wednesday and some 60 residents who spent the night in hotels were allowed back into their homes at about noon Thursday, Opal Mayor Mary Hall told the Los Angeles Times.
Authorities used air monitoring equipment to see whether methane levels were low enough for the town to be safe, Williams spokesman George Angerbauer told The Times.
Firefighters haven’t been able to safely reach the scene, Angerbauer said.
“What you really got to do is let it burn,” he said of the fuel.
A camera mounted on a drone and a news helicopter have given authorities a better picture of the fire, and they were hoping to further cut off fuel to just the affected unit midday Thursday.
The entire facility has been recently processing nearly 1 billion cubic feet of natural gas a day, close to its maximum capacity of 1.5 billion.
Stockpiles of natural gas in the West totaled 178 billion cubic feet at the end of last week, about half the supply available a year ago, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reported Thursday.
The natural-gas supply decreased significantly in recent months as homes and businesses sought to warm up during the harsh winter. Natural Gas Intelligence reported Thursday that though prices for natural gas rose in the wake of the Opal fire, the effect could have been much worse had the explosion happened at the tail end of winter.
The processing units at Williams’ plant take in natural gas from fields in Wyoming and Utah, bring it to low temperatures and then churn out purified fuels, including liquefied natural gas, for shipping on pipelines that stretch to the West Coast, including Southern California.
The company said the cause of the explosion would not be known until officials can inspect the site.
Hall credited Williams for buying the city an emergency evacuation siren three years ago. The siren was activated after Wednesday's explosion. Emergency alerts on social media and local radio and via direct calls to residents also were used to notify people, Mayor Hall said.
"Williams is great neighbor," Hall said. "They go through training every single year for this kind of event and the town’s been very progressive about being prepared."
A pressure vessel rupture and subsequent leak and fire at a Williams tank storing liquefied natural gas in Plymouth, Wash., on March 31 injured a handful of people and forced dozens of residents nearby to stay away for two days. In the wake of the incident, nearby residents called for an automatic evacuation warning system.
In West Virginia, a Williams pipe carrying unprocessed natural gas ruptured and flamed April 7. No one was injured.