A natural gas compressor station in southern Pennsylvania exploded overnight Thursday, prompting the evacuation of about 150 people and raising concerns about safety amid the shale-gas boom that is spreading throughout the state.

A local resident reported a “loud noise” at the Artemas Compressor Station in Mann Township, Bedford County, at about 12:30 a.m., according to Shawn Trahan, a spokeswoman for Houston-based Columbia Gas Transmission, part of NiSource, which operates the station.

Working with local fire and emergency services, company officials shut down the station and a nearby underground gas-storage facility and the fire was extinguished, Trahan said. There were no injuries and apparently no damage to surrounding homes. Residents returned to their homes by about 7 a.m.

“An initial investigation shows no off-site impact,” Trahan said. She said the company is investigating what caused the explosion.

Fodder For Activists

A number of spills, leaks and instances of gas migration into private water wells has prompted tighter regulation and fueled opposition to Pennsylvania’s booming shale industry which has sunk more than 3,000 wells into the gas-rich Marcellus Shale since 2008.

Critics of the industry say human health is threatened by drinking water contaminated by toxic chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing–or “fracking“–the process that, combined with horizontal drilling, has enabled the widespread exploitation of previously uneconomic shale beds.

Safety concerns rose in June 2010 when a well in central Pennsylvania’s Clearfield County blew out, leaking fracking fluid for 16 hours until it was capped.

There was no immediate impact on the distribution companies that receive gas from the compressor station, which has a storage and throughput capacity of 572 million cubic feet a day, Trahan said. But they may experience future restrictions in supply, she said.

Melissa Singleton, secretary for Mann Township where the explosion occurred, described the incident as “loud and bright” when she and other officials went to the scene at about 1 a.m.

Local residents have been comfortable with the local gas industry but are now less so because of the explosion, she said. “They were a little concerned,” she said.

The Feds Get Involved

Iris Marie Bloom, director of the Philadelphia-based activist group Protecting Our Waters, which wants a moratorium on shale drilling until its safety can be established, predicted the explosion will be followed by similar incidents with the expected addition of tens of thousands of wells, serviced by pipelines and compressor stations, in coming years.

“We do expect this type of incident to happen repeatedly until we a get a moratorium in place,” she told Breaking Energy.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection believes there was no environmental impact from the explosion, and so the agency’s involvement is minimal, said spokesman Kevin Sunday.

Because the affected pipeline was a transmission line rather than the gathering lines that are regulated by the state, an investigation into the explosion will be held by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s pipeline-safety division, Sunday said.

Travis Windle, a spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry group representing drillers, pipeline companies and others, could not be reached for comment.