Officials say blast was unavoidable

January 24, 1995|By Darren M. Allen | Darren M. Allen,Sun Staff Writer

Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. crews responding to a natural gas pipeline rupture in Westminster last week were virtually powerless to prevent the resulting explosion, company officials and gas industry observers said yesterday.

Although their investigation into the blast that destroyed one house and caused more than $1 million in damage to 66 others is incomplete, BGE officials said their response conformed with the company's gas emergency guidelines.

"It appears our people did what they were supposed to do," said BGE spokeswoman Peggy Mulloy. "Of course, we're concerned about what happened, and we want to continue to check it out."

A leak and survey technician who had been working in nearby Frizzelburg and a gas construction crew from Cockeysville were dispatched three minutes after the main was struck by a crew laying cable television lines.

The BGE workers did not arrive until an hour later.

Thursday's blast in a vacant home in the Autumn Ridge neighborhood was caused by a tiny spark from a basement sump pump, state fire officials said.

Gas seeped from the ruptured main into the Sunshine Way home's basement for more than 90 minutes before a BGE gas construction crew shut off the flow of gas.

It was the underground path taken by the natural gas that confounded the crews who responded to the accident, BGE officials said.

The technician who arrived from Frizzelburg searched for gas odor in the five homes closest to the ruptured main, BGE spokesman Arthur J. Slusark said yesterday.

He also used a device to measure gas levels, Mr. Slusark said. He found nothing abnormal in the surrounding houses, nor outside of the two houses he could not enter.

One of those houses was the one that exploded about an hour after the flow of gas was stopped.

"I'll tell you, this was a unique situation," Mr. Slusark said. "Since he didn't find an abnormal level of gas, the decision was made to shut off the gas and repair the main."

The company kept crews in the blast neighborhood from Thursday until Sunday.

As is routine after all utility emergencies, members of the crews who initially responded to the explosion were tested for drugs; all of the tests turned up negative, Mr. Slusark said.

Thursday's blast blew apart the house that used to stand at 90 Sunshine Way. Four other homes have been condemned, and 16 others will require extensive repairs before they can be lived in again.

No one was injured in the explosion.

The utility's crews have specific jobs, and no crew is qualified to do the work of the other. The leak and survey technician was not trained to shut off gas service; the gas construction crew was not qualified toturn off electric service; and electricity technicians aren't able to handle gas situations.

Mr. Slusark said that although in hindsight shutting off the electricity may appear to have been able to prevent the sump pump in the vacant house from turning on, there is no way to know if the explosion would have occurred when power was restored.

The company handles more than 600 ruptures to its 4,500-mile network of gas pipelines a year, and, practically speaking, shutting off electricity as a precaution would mean that thousands of customers a day would have their service interrupted while gas line technicians make repairs.

"That just isn't prudent," Mr. Slusark said.

Although BGE and other utilities have gas emergency guidelines, there are no industry standards for how to handle them, according to the American Gas Association, a trade group based in Arlington, Va.

Gas service, however, is regulated by the U.S. Department of Transportation, which issues broad guidelines for utilities.

Paul Young, a spokesman for Washington Gas and Light Co., said that his company's response to gas emergencies is similar to BGE's.

After a rupture is reported, the closest crews are dispatched to the emergency.

"Obviously, our priority is assessing where the leak is coming from and getting people out of danger," Mr. Young said.

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