Carrying on: Opal returns to peace and quiet after natural gas plant explosion

2014-05-06T08:00:00Z Carrying on: Opal returns to peace and quiet after natural gas plant explosionBy TOM DIXON Casper Star-Tribune The Billings Gazette
May 06, 2014 8:00 am  • 

The tiny town of Opal was quiet last Friday evening. A charred and blackened tower hidden by the hills north and west of the southwestern Wyoming town was the only reminder of the explosion and fire that led to a 20-hour evacuation of Opal’s entire population April 23.

Nine days later, residents met the entire incident with a collective shrug.

“It’s quiet here. People mostly keep to themselves,” said Don Olbers, petting his sad-eyed basset hound, Lady. “I think that’s why people live here.”

Like many residents, Olbers was working out of town when the explosion happened. He said officials tracked him down quickly to let him know what happened.

Opal Mayor Mary Hall credited the quick response to frequent emergency drills and clear communication between agencies.

“When you’re living miles from a gas plant, you better plan for these kinds of things,” Hall said.

Every Thursday at noon, Opal’s emergency siren blares. The siren was paid for by Williams Partners, which owns the nearby natural gas processing plant. That’s the weekly test. If residents hear the siren at any other time, they know they need to leave immediately.

Shortly after 2 p.m. on April 23, an explosion ignited one of the plant’s five processing trains. Town Clerk Jane Broadhead sounded the alarm. Within the hour, county emergency responders were helping Opal residents evacuate in case the fire escalated, according to company spokesman George Angerbauer.

Town officials ran through a head count. By 5:30 p.m., about the time company officials said the fire was under control, Hall said everyone in town was accounted for.

The town’s official population is 95. Hall said the real number is closer to 57.

The company paid for residents to stay at the Little America hotel along Interstate 80, or the Best Western in nearby Kemmerer.

By 11:30 a.m. the next day, residents were given the all-clear.

“They’ve treated us well,” said Olbers, a 14-year resident of Opal.

The company’s community outreach has included donations to community fundraisers and, recently, a service vehicle, said Mayor Hall.

Spokesman Angerbauer said the company is working to reimburse families for any expenses beyond the hotel stay, such as things like dinner or medicine.

“Williams is an awesome company,” Hall said. “Williams has never treated us like they’re a big business and we’re just little people. They’ve always, always stepped up.”

Opal residents have dealt with a string of evacuations in the last 14 years. Two fires, one sparked along the railroad tracks running through town and another one set by a county resident that blazed out of control, forced people from their homes years ago. Most recently, the shooting of a Lincoln County deputy and subsequent 10-hour standoff on New Year's Eve 2009 prompted an evacuation.

Each of the past incidents taught town officials something about how to organize a safe, effective evacuation, said Hall. The explosion at the natural gas plant showed officials they need to update contact information for every resident more frequently. Williams, too, will be poring over the incident to glean lessons for the future.

“We had a community meeting with the town manager and mayor, and we talked to them about the emergency response,” said Angerbauer. “We’re planning to meet back with them when we do know more about the incident and the cause.”

Angerbauer said it could be months before regulatory agencies determine the cause of the explosion. He said the company did not have a cost estimate on the damage to the plant.

The plant reopened two of its trains May 1. The company opened the fifth train Monday morning.

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