Ruptured gas line snarls traffic in Westminster

Nearby businesses and homes evacuated

May 14, 1999|By Mike Farabaugh | Mike Farabaugh,SUN STAFF

Utility workers ruptured a natural gas line in Westminster yesterday, forcing the evacuation of about 10 homes and businesses, and snarling traffic for more than seven hours, authorities said.

No one was injured, and local and state police shut down access to Route 97 and East Main Street soon after a Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. crew boring under the intersection to replace a gas main accidentally struck a 2-inch main at 12: 05 p.m.

The underground rupture was quickly vented to prevent a fire or an explosion, said Lt. Charles Simpson, spokesman for the Westminster Fire Engine & Hose Co. No. 1.

As BGE crews opened a gaping hole in the roadway to expose the leaking main, orange clouds of dust and fumes spewed into the air, at times causing observers 40 yards away to cover their noses and mouths as the noxious odor of natural gas became stronger.

Favorable northwesterly breezes, however, reduced the danger of fumes concentrating in the atmosphere and causing serious breathing problems or nausea for those nearby, Simpson said.

While traffic was rerouted at least a half-mile east, west and south of the rupture, police were able to keep traffic moving on congested Route 140, a half-mile north of the intersection.

Trucks traveling north on Route 97 toward Westminster were diverted onto Route 32 for fear that vibrations from the heavy vehicles would further damage the gas main, said Simpson. Cars were allowed as far north as Hook Road, where police had set up roadblocks, he said.

Main Street Exchange, a high-rise office building on the northwest corner of Route 97 and East Main Street, remained open so patients requiring kidney dialysis there could keep their appointments, Simpson said.

Emergency officials monitored the air quality inside and outside the building, he said.

BGE crews stopped the leak within about 90 minutes, ending any significant danger of fire, Simpson said.

Repairs were completed at about 7 p.m.

It was unclear how many residents were at home when houses on Old Westminster Pike, east of the intersection with Route 97, and several small businesses were evacuated, authorities said.

The gas leak also affected about 100 students at Westminster High School and 100 pupils at Robert Moton Elementary School trying to get home after classes. Their buses could not drive into neighborhoods where police had set up roadblocks near the leak.

"Students were held at the school and parents were called to pick up their children," said Keith Shorter, a spokesman for the school transportation department. "Three bus runs from the high school and two or three from Robert Moton were canceled, but the students were never in any danger from the gas leak."

Jessica Brown, a spokesman for BGE, said no customers lost service, but work crews responding from Baltimore needed to lower pressure in natural gas lines so the repairs could be made.

Traffic headed into Westminster during the evening rush hour was backed up beyond Reese, approximately three miles east of the county seat, state police said.

Traffic heading north on Route 97 was detoured onto Route 32, creating a mile-long backup as motorists traveling into Westminster paused at the roadblock to request directions or to ask what had happened, police said.

Pub Date: 5/14/99

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