Pipeline Fire Erupts in Lehigh County, Pennsylvania

ALLENTOWN, Pa. (AP) -- A gasoline pipeline exploded Tuesday morning, shooting flames and a huge plume of dark, oily smoke into the sky and forcing evacuations.

About 30 people were evacuated from nearby homes and businesses, but there were no injuries or property damage reported from the 6:30 a.m. explosion in South Whitehall Township, Lehigh County, officials said.

``A super-dense black smoke covers the whole area. The sun was out but then we couldn't see it anymore,'' said nearby resident Deborah Costa, 52, who watched the fire through binoculars and said the flames shot up 30 feet in the air.

The feed to the pipeline was turned off at a valve in Malvern and the fire was diminishing, but still active later Tuesday, said Valerie Hildebeitel, a spokeswoman for the Lehigh County Emergency Management Agency.

Exxon/Mobil, which operates the transmission pipeline, said it did not immediately know the cause or size of the spill. Company spokesman Brian Dunphy declined to estimate how long the fire would take to burn out.

The oily fumes from the four-alarm blaze led area schools to close their air intakes, but students were not being sent home, the dispatcher said. People with respiratory ailments were advised to stay indoors.

Emergency responders - including firefighters, environmental response teams and Exxon/Mobil officials - were on the scene in a semi-rural area.

The pipeline system carries petroleum products to customers in Pennsylvania and northern New York, Exxon/Mobil said in a statement. The explosion occurred at the intersection of the 8-inch main pipeline and a 6-inch offshoot that runs east into Allentown, Dunphy said.

``We deeply regret the occurrence of the spill and fire and any inconvenience it may cause local residents,'' Exxon/Mobil operations manager John DuPre said in the statement.

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