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False alarm shows residents' concerns


Natural gas odors a longtime issue on Worcester Street



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Jay Ricci of the National Grid Emergency Response Unit tests for potential gas leaks on Friday. Christopher Tanguay. (click for larger version)
July 19, 2009
BY CHRISTOPHER TANGUAY

NEWS STAFF WRITER

SOUTHBRIDGE — All 75-year-old Connie Cole planned to do on Friday was mow the lawn.

She never got to it, though. When Cole fired up the engine, a mechanical malfunction caused oil to spray out of the lawnmower, releasing a large plume of smoke.

Seeing the yard, and what appeared to be the house, filled with smoke, a concerned neighbored called 911. Police officers and firefighters were on the scene at Cole's Worcester Street home — only a few hundred yards north of the Tennessee Pipeline, the major supplier of natural gas to Southbridge and much of the nation — in minutes.

While the lawnmower mishap was a false alarm, the mere sight of police and fire crews in Worcester Street's 400 neighborhood turned many residents' minds immediately to the odor of natural gas that has been emanating from that area for as long as some of them can remember.

Cole, a lifelong Southbridge resident, said the smell of gas has filled her driveway and the sidewalk in front of her home for "a long, long time."

"I can't say how many years, but it's been a long time, a lot of years," Cole said. "It's been too long."

Over the last year, there have been three calls to National Grid's emergency telephone from Cole's residence alone. Although each call received a prompt response, and even warranted a patch of road being opened earlier this year, residents of the house said the smell, and its accompanying concern, never went away.

Dell Brousseau, who lives across Route 169 from Cole, said that he too has noticed the smell regularly come and go.

"I suppose it's the way the wind blows," Brousseau said of the intermittent odor.

Cole's biggest fear when it comes to the odor: "Fire, explosion, I mean your life."

Her fear is legit. In January, longtime police officer Wayne Sargent was critically injured in a Gloucester explosion caused by a gas leak. One month prior, David Kupris of Scituate was killed in a fire also fueled by a release of natural gas.

Friday's incident was once again motivation to request a test for gas leaks in the area.

Jay Ricci of National Grid's Emergency Response Unit arrived on Worcester Street within 15 minutes of being called by the Fire Department.

Ricci said this, like all of the unit's calls, would be entered into a database that maintains records on all of the calls to any address.

Unfortunately, this is not a database to which local emergency responders have access.

Police Sgt. Jose Dingui said that if a call comes in requesting assistance at a house such as Cole's, with a history of concerns over natural gas, there's no way for responders to know that.

"No one local would necessarily know about it," Dingui said. If someone's first course of action is to contact the police rather than the Fire Department or the gas company, Dingui said the report would be entered into their call log, but that there is no provision alerting responders to that in the future.

Dingui maintained the same attitude as Fire Lt. John Larochelle, who said, "We respond to every incident the same. We treat every one like an emergency."

Firefighter Paul Nault said, "It's hard to keep a running database because National Grid's out there checking them."

Larochelle said that if there is any concern about natural gas at an incident they are responding to, like the police, they contact National Grid.

Ricci explained that the orange cone apparatus on the front of all National Grid trucks is actually a gas meter that looks for any leaks along the roadways.

"We're always riding the gas main," he said.

Upon arriving outside Cole's house, Ricci said the work earlier this year was indeed to remedy a slow leak.

"They put some leak clamps on the main," Ricci said, though acknowledging that vibrations from traffic or stones pushed up against the pipe can cause the flow of gas to resume.

After following the proper protocol of testing inside the house first, then the exterior of the foundation and working his way toward the street to make sure no gas was leaking in or near the residence, Ricci, using a punch-bar, made a few small holes along the curb where the gas main runs. Ricci then inserted a probe into the ground through the holes to test for a possible leak.

He found one.

"There's a slight leak," he said. "It's a leak, but it's not necessarily a leak that needs immediate attention."

The highest priority leaks, Ricci explained, are those that occur inside homes or directly against foundations. Otherwise, Ricci said, the leak was so minor that it doesn't pose a threat.

"Natural gas has to be confined" to be flammable, he said. "It's lighter than air so it dissipates very quickly."

Ricci said he anticipates a crew will visit Worcester Street at some point this week to address the leak, assuring residents "I would never leave if there was any danger to anybody."

"I'm out here for public safety," he added.

Ricci went on to say an issue not unique to Southbridge, but unbeknownst to most people, is that residual sulfur dioxide wafting through neighborhoods from the landfill can make people think they are smelling gas, and can even fool some natural gas testing equipment.

"It smells like natural gas almost," Ricci said, explaining that natural gas does not smell at all and the familiar odor coming from the pilot lights on our stoves is an additive specifically put into the gas for olfactory identification.

Despite the close proximity to the landfill, Ricci said people should not hesitate to contact National Grid or the Fire Department and report the smell.

To report the suspected smell of gas to National Grid, call (800) 548-8000.

Christopher Tanguay may be reached at (508) 909-4132, or by e-mail at ctanguay@stonebridgepress.com.

See Monday's Southbridge Evening News for this story and more coverage of community news.

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