At about 1 p.m. a backhoe digging a drain on the corner of Sacramento Street and Blake Street broke a main high-pressure gas pipeline.
Police blocked off four city blocks and redirected traffic around the intersection until 3 p.m. when Pacific Gas & Electric workers finally clamped the pipeline. Assistant Fire Chief Ron Falstad said he evacuated residents from the 1 1/2 blocks nearest the gas leak and brought in three trucks and an ambulance as precautionary measures.
“This is a high-pressure gas line so if it ignites there will be a big plume of fire higher than that telephone pole,” said Assistant Fire Chief David Orth, while the outcome was still unclear. “Normally, they don’t ignite, though.”
Although the Fire Department can clamp the smaller half-inch pipelines while waiting for PG&E to arrive on the scene, Orth said that the high-pressure 2-inch line was something PG&E had to handle. “Something this major happens three to four times a year,” said Orth.
In an hour and a half, the six-person PG&E crew to put a vise on the plastic pipeline without any complications.
Richard Billups, a PG&E supervisor, said they only had to cut off the gas in the immediate area around the leak. PG&E did not have to shut off the gas to any of the houses in the area. Electricity and water were unaffected.
Orth said there was no health risk because natural gas dissipates quickly. Mercaptin, an odorizer added to natural gas to make leaks detectible, is toxic in high concentrations, but not in this case. Natural gas may also cause suffocation because it excludes oxygen, but will not cause problems if people stay away from confined spaces.
Still, local residents were worried. “My house reeks,” said Lorraine Taggert, who lives several blocks south of the gas leak and was not evacuated. She noticed the smell at 1 p.m. and came out to consult with neighbors and firefighters about what to do.
Residents north of the gas leak, however, could not smell the gas because the wind was blowing south.
Ron, the Berkeley Cement worker who hit the pipeline, said this sort of accident is not uncommon. “It doesn’t take much to break the line,” he explained as he smoked a cigarette. “It’s plastic so it breaks easily.”
Ron explained that he has hit pipelines before, but he can usually feel them before digging too deep.
“It’s one of those things that happens–like when you’re digging in your yard to put in a new flower and you hit a sprinkler line. Only this is on a bigger scale,” he said.
PG&E is still investigating the case to find out who is at fault so that the company can bill them.
Jason Alderman, a company spokesperson, said that right now it seems to be the fault of Berkeley Cement.