Tuesday, March 18, 2014 — Last week explosions and fires following an apparent natural gas leak leveled a pair of apartment buildings in New York City’s East Harlem, killing and injuring many of residents.
Officials from the city of Susanville and the Susanville Sanitary District report ruptures of natural gas pipelines in the city of Susanville are a rarity, but a plumber clearing a sewer line at a Third Street residence Feb. 25 severed a natural gas line and caused a natural gas leak. The homeowners were evacuated, the natural gas leak was stopped and there were no injuries, explosions or fires.
Could a natural gas line rupture pose a safety risk to the people of Susanville? The answer depends upon whom you ask.
Susanville resident Ron Morales said he has had problems with his sewer line draining for nearly a decade after converting to natural gas. He said he tried a number of self-remedies that offered little relief. He repeatedly hired plumbers to snake the line. Sometimes the repairs seemed to work for a while, but the problem always returned.
After nine years Morales finally dug up the sewer line and discovered a natural gas line had punctured his sewer line near its connection to the main sewer line in the street when the main gas line was installed. It appears a “boot” repair apparently had been made to the sewer line.
Morales, who has filed a lawsuit in the matter in Lassen Superior Court, said he believes similar problems exist all over town, they just haven’t been discovered yet. He believes this will become a big problem in the future.
The city’s natural gas contractor, Arizona Pipeline, used a technique called “directional drilling” during the construction project. In directional drilling, a hole is dug and then a boring bit drills horizontally at a certain depth to another hole. The pipeline is then inserted through the newly bored hole.
According to a National Natural Gas Association White Paper regarding natural gas pipeline drilling, there are a number of suggested cautions regarding the practice, and sewer lines are a particular concern.
According to the white paper, one recommendation is installers should dig trenches rather than use directional drilling when the sewer lines cannot be located.
Craig Platt, the city of Susanville’s public works director, declined to comment on the Morales lawsuit, but he said, “Sewer and gas (lines) are a national issue because nobody takes responsibility (for the sewer lines). To date they’re the only ones required not to have to mark their facilities if they chose to protect them. In the case of laterals, (the Susanville Sanitary District) has taken some big steps where if they’re replaced with the proper pipe and proper cleanouts, the sewer district will take liability for them … You can’t stop digging because there might be something somewhere.”
“The original construction when the line went in, it was cheaper and easier for the contractor to just blow through the ground, blow through everything, and fix the sewer laterals later rather than take the time to try and pothole where they might be and dig around them,” said Randy O’Hearn, general manager of the Susanville Sanitary District. “A lot of time contractors will just dig through everything and come back and fix it.”
Third Street incident
The Feb. 25 leak on Third Street involved a rupture of a natural gas line inside the resident’s sewer lateral that was connected to the sewer main in the alley behind the residence.
“I don’t think it’s fair to say it’s a common problem all over town,” said O’Hearn. “This is probably a pretty rare case. Normally it (the natural gas line) doesn’t run up the sewer line like that. Normally it goes in one side and out the other.”
Platt said the plumber was cutting or snaking the residence’s sewer line and cut a gas line “that was in the top part of the sewer line and caused a leak. Normal procedures were handled obviously to evacuate the house, control the situation, call the fire department and the police department.”
Platt said the plumber had called but was unable to determine the location of the natural gas pipeline.
He said after the leak was discovered, the city responded, shut of the gas, allowed it to air out and made the necessary repairs.
“The line was obviously removed, the sewer line was replaced in that section and the gas line was moved and put back out,” Platt said.
The repairs only took a few minutes.
As did Arizona Pipeline, the city also uses a directional drilling boring machine to make connections between the main gas line and a business or residence.
“It’s a rarity, but it happens,” Platt said. “It could happen to anybody who does directional drilling. It happens with telephone (lines), it happens with many different things because of the sewer lines not being located. (It happens to) everybody, not just us. You do your due diligence and precautions in locating those facilities, but when there’s no indication of any of those lines anywhere, I mean, if we had X-ray vision, it would be great. … A directional line was put in, a bore, under their concrete that wasn’t cut, and there was an intrusion into the top half of that sewer line for about six feet that went out through the back of a buried cleanout … Ten feet further is where the gas service was set.”
Despite calling the incident a rarity, O’Hearn said natural gas leaks can pose a serious hazard.
“It has major, major implications,” O’Hearn said. “What happens with a sewer line is if a customer’s lateral isn’t free-flowing or is partially plugged up, most plumbers will take a root-cutting tool or something to unclog the lateral, they’ll run that tool through there whether its running in the pipe or through the pipe it cuts roots, and it will certainly cut a gas line. Then what happens is the volume in that pipe fills up with natural gas, and if you get a spark somewhere, it could be devastating.
“In this case, we vented the manholes in case there was any gas. The city was real good about using their (natural) gas sniffer, and they weren’t able to detect any gas in the sewer pipes.
“Once the pipes and the manholes fill up with natural gas, it could be like a bomb going off.”