An accidental gas line rupture caused by the construction of the Global Village resulted in two building evacuations on December 3. The leak was quickly stopped, and buildings were reoccupied within about an hour of the incident.
According to James Yarrington, director of Campus Planning, Design and Construction, the line was hit at 10:54 a.m. while attempting to install a fence post on the northeast corner of the Global Village site. Shortly thereafter, residents of nearby buildings smelled the pungent odor of natural gas.
Natural gas in its pure form is colorless, odorless and tasteless. Under the right circumstances, it can be explosive. Hundreds died in Texas when the New London Junior-Senior High School suffered a natural gas explosion in 1937. To prevent such catastrophes, gas providers have added a chemical with a strong sulfur smell. This allows gas leaks to be quickly detected.
Ian Gatley, director of the Center for Student Innovation and Undergraduate Research Support, was at his desk in the center when students asked him if he thought gas might be leaking from a radiator. “A person came rushing in and said ‘we’re evacuating the building because there is a gas leak,’” said Gatley.
The University Services Center, including the Center for Student Innovation, and the Center for Microelectronics and Computer Engineering were evacuated according to Yarrington. Public Safety said they responded to evacuate the affected buildings.
Gatley joined others standing outside the Services Center and then took a lunch break. When he returned, about an hour later, the building had already been reopened.
According to Yarrington, who cited an incident report, the flow to the leak was stopped within minutes. Buildings were then ventilated and tested by Environmental Health and Safety (EH&S). Residents were allowed back in by 11:40 a.m.
David Armanini, director of EH&S, said buildings were tested by a certified industrial hygienist with a meter that tests for gas combustibility levels. The concentrations present in the buildings did not register as combustible.
“There was no danger to anyone in the building,” said Armanini. According to him, buildings were ventilated because of the odor and were reopened when the ventilation was complete.
To avoid these kinds of accidents New York State law requires a call to a central clearinghouse for information on buried pipes before excavation. Yarrington asserts appropriate measures were taken.
“Pipes were marked using mapping and GPS data as usual before any excavation began,” he said in a written response. “In fact, the location data was off by about one half of a pipe width.” This error caused the pipe to be struck.
The type of GPS device typically used for surveying construction sites is subject to less error than consumer units, but minor inaccuracies still exist. Data entered for existing utility lines are occasionally incorrect as well.
As techniques improve, accidental excavations have decreased, but over 135,000 excavations were still reported to the Common Ground Alliance for 2008. Some 63,000 (52 percent) of those were natural gas lines.
“An accident occurred and approved protocol was followed to deal with the issue and ensure safety,” said Yarrington.