Gasline odor leaves residents, responders upset
A pipeline upgrade by UGI Penn Natural Gas resulted in the evacuation of a Luzerne County school while the stench spread panic well into Lackawanna County.
"This is ridiculous," said Lackawanna County Director of Emergency Services Tom Dubas of UGI's failure to notify authorities of its operation.
"They don't have the decency to notify us about something like this."
That failure, he explained, resulted in about two dozen fire crews dispatched to reports of the smell in Lackwanna County.
Meanwhile, students at Wyoming Valley West High School in Luzerne County were dismissed early Friday when officials closed the school because of the stench.
Superintendent Chuck Suppon said more than 100 students said they became sick from a gas odor that resulted from UGI Penn Natural Gas' upgrade of a pipeline in the Hunlock Creek area.
UGI reported that the "mercaptain," the chemical used to give odorless natural gas its characteristic rotten egg smell, is harmless. Because the odorant is so highly concentrated, however, customers may detect it even when equipment and pipelines are operating safely and properly, UGI officials said.
"It's not toxic. It's not going to cause long-term health effects, but it can make you nauseous," said Luzerne County Emergency Management Agency coordinator Steve Bekanich. "If you breathe it, it is going to make you not feel well."
Lackawanna County did not have any evacuated schools or buildings Thursday, but the odor resulted in callers reporting possible gas leaks from the Downvalley all the way to Scranton.
Mr. Dubas said the federal government mandates that fire crews respond to every emergency call of natural gas odor in case a leak has occurred. As per protocol, the gas company is also notified.
"We're sending fire units all over the place, all because UGI either doesn't know what they're doing or they're sure as heck not telling anybody what they're doing. It's very frustrating," Mr. Dubas said.
Mr. Bekanich got on the phone Friday with UGI officials and learned the over-odorized natural gas additive was permeating houses and buildings.
"I had it in my house this morning, and it gave me a headache and it made me feel nauseous," Mr. Bekanich said. "It's not an explosion hazard. It's not a fire hazard. It's not actually the gas in the building. It's the additive."
UGI had been upgrading a pipeline in the Hunlock Creek area since Wednesday. During the testing process, over-odorized natural gas was used as a safety precaution, said Don Brominski, spokesman for UGI. He said the intention was the over-odorized gas would blend with the rest of the system.
"We weren't expecting this today," Mr. Brominski said. "We were hoping it wouldn't cause problems, but I guess too much of the highly odorized gas hit certain areas."
UGI officials expect the issues associated with the over-odorized natural gas will dissipate over the next 24 hours. UGI has since shut down the line.
"We're evaluating what we're going to do going forward," Mr. Brominski said.
Mr. Bekanich has been in touch with the state Public Utility Commission since Wednesday to complain that the EMA was not notified in advance about UGI's pipeline upgrade. He scheduled a meeting with UGI officials for Wednesday to discuss the issues that occurred. PUC and Lackawanna County officials were invited, he said.
Contact the writers: dallabaugh @citizensvoice.com, domalley @timesshamrock.comIf you smell gas
UGI advises that if customers detect a gas smell, they should try to ventilate the building by opening a window and call UGI.
UGI is treating all gas-odor reports as emergencies and customers should call 1-800-276-2722.
If the odor is strong, customers should evacuate the building immediately and leave a door or window open if possible.
In case of a strong odor, call UGI from outside the building and do not turn any switches on or off. Never return to an evacuated building until someone from UGI confirms that it is safe to do so.