How to stay safe in a natural gas leak
Thursday's massive explosions throughout the Merrimack Valley in Massachusetts north of Boston are preliminarily being blamed on over-pressurized natural gas lines that were being worked on.
The scale of the explosions and fires is unusual given that most natural gas-related building explosions are singular incidents caused by leaks and not a systemwide event.
Though many gas companies throughout the country are making infrastructural upgrades, building explosions from gas leaks are not uncommon. Last year, two suburban houses exploded from gas leaks in Marengo and Libertyville.
Utility and safety experts said the most important thing to do when a gas leak is discovered is to get away and call 911 and the gas company. The telltale "rotten egg" odor is the first line of defense.
Switching on a light can cause the spark that ignites the gas. Static electricity can spark the gas. Any number of things someone might do to investigate the odor may spark the gas and cause a building to explode.
There are "service valves" on every meter to stop the flow of natural gas but in emergencies, that should be done by professionals. HVAC and plumbers should operate the service valves in a house only during routine maintenance, experts said.
Owners of older houses can have plumbers check to see if pipes should be replaced. Gas companies, like Nicor in the suburbs and Peoples Gas in Chicago, are making widespread upgrades to aged pipelines. Between 2014 and 2017, Nicor officials said, the company had replaced 450 miles of pipeline and 72,000 service lines.
"Customers are not charged if Nicor Gas initiates changes for upkeep, natural gas main revisions or planned system upgrades," said Nicor spokeswoman Jennifer Golz. "Customers impacted by work in their neighborhood may be contacted in the form of a letter, door hanger, face-to-face visit or phone call. We also place social media ads and issue press releases around projects that may have a larger community impact."
Most gas companies provide maps of pipeline infrastructure online. Golz said most customers live near natural gas pipelines without knowing it, but she reiterated the importance of property owners contacting JULIE (Joint Utility Locating Information for Excavators) before proceeding with any major digging projects to avoid breaking any utility line, including a gas pipeline.