News


Palo Altans: 'Why didn't PG&E warn of gas purge?'

Two schools evacuate and use incident as a disaster drill after PG&E purges gas mains during post-San Bruno 'pipeline assessment' operations

Palo Alto residents and city and school officials are asking why PG&E didn't warn anyone it was about to purge a major natural-gas line in Mountain View late Wednesday morning.

The strong gas smell that drifted through parts of south Palo Alto and Mountain View about 11 a.m. Wednesday evoked fears of a San Bruno-like explosion and caused the evacuation of two Palo Alto schools: JLS Middle School and Palo Verde Elementary School.

Scores of residents went outside their homes to try to sniff out where the smell was coming from, or if it was a gas leak from inside their homes. Palo Alto firefighters parked along Middlefield Road and Oregon Expressway and were also trying to detect the source of what was described as a strong smell of natural gas.

Principals at JLS and Palo Verde smelled the gas and decided to evacuate their classrooms.

Palo Verde Principal Anne Brown said students followed procedures they had learned just weeks ago in a mock earthquake drill, and were evacuated for about 25 minutes.

"Once we got a report from (the school district) that it was a release and that the gas was gone we went back inside," Brown said.

"We opened up doors and windows and were ready to go. Not one student even had a headache.

"It was a good test of our disaster preparedness and we were really proud of how well it went."

Co-Chief Business Official Bob Golton said the district's source of information about the release came from the city, and that PG&E had not contacted the district.

"The schools evacuated on abundance of caution, and that's precisely what we want them to do," Golton said.

City Utilities Department officials scrambled to find the source when reports and complaints started pouring in to the city's dispatch center, finally tracking it to a PG&E "pipeline assessment" operation near Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View.

"We're doing some pipeline assessment work," PG&E spokesman Matt Nauman said Wednesday when contacted by the Mountain View Voice. He said that at about 11 a.m.Wednesday crews opened up a portion of a gas main near Shoreline and flushed it of natural gas in order to send in a robot to examine the main for structural integrity.

"After the San Bruno accident, we are obviously assessing our pipeline," Nauman said, referring to the disastrous Sept. 9 explosion and fire. "This is part of that assessment."

Nauman said the utility notified some residents and businesses in both Mountain View and Palo Alto that they might smell gas, but the smell apparently spread out lingered due to lack of a breeze.

The odor may have hung in the air longer than it might have on a windier day, Nauman said, adding that the gas did not pose a health or explosion risk.

Palo Alto Utilities Director Val Fong said shortly after noon that Palo Alto "received no notification from PG&E about the natural gas purging. However, preliminary indications are that PG&E may have done some gas purging on facilities nearby but outside of Palo Alto."

The smell drew scores of south Palo Alto residents out of their homes to sniff the air, and for a time the smell puzzled firefighters who responded to a dispatch citing a "natural gas incident" in the area of Middlefield Road and Oregon Expressway.

By 1 p.m., the city officials had confirmed with PG&E that "the smell of gas is the result of a controlled release of a significant amount of gas by PG&E during inspection of its gas transmission system in the Mountain View and Palo Alto areas.

"In order to safely inspect the inside of the gas transmission line, the purging of gas from the PG&E system was necessitated," Communications Manager Linda Clerkson reported in an e-mail to the Weekly.

"There is no danger to the public from this situation; however, there will be a slight gas odor in the area until it completely dissipates."

She also gave notice that another smell may be passing through Thursday morning: "There will likely be another controlled gas release by PG&E on the same pipe section in the early morning hours of Thursday, Nov. 4, prior to 6 a.m., so people may again smell gas again depending on weather conditions.

"This work is done at the end of the job to purge air out of pipe and bring the pipe back into operation.

"If the situation significantly changes, we will keep you informed. This information is posted on the City's webpage," she said.

Additional information about natural gas and gas safety, is at www.cityofpaloalto.org.

Nauman said that during the gas-main assessment crews are sending a video camera deep into the line to look for damage. It is part of an examination of gas mains running up and down the Peninsula that PG&E has been conducting for the past few weeks.

The assessment is scheduled to end at 11 p.m., he said. When it ends, those nearby may smell similar smells or hear similar sounds as they did Wednesday morning. Nauman said there is no reason for alarm.

-- Palo Alto Online staff

Comments

Posted by Gus L., a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 3, 2010 at 11:59 am

I just smelled it driving on Alma and Page mill underpass, Scary stuff. Hope they find the leak.


Posted by Grammar, a resident of Palo Verde
on Nov 3, 2010 at 12:07 pm

"Fire Dispatch termed it a 'natural gas incident'"

Eats shoots and leaves.


Posted by Walter_E_Wallis, a resident of Midtown
on Nov 3, 2010 at 12:08 pm

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

Smelled it near Waverley & Colorado, too. The odorant artificially introduced into natural gas is a known carcinogen, so the city needs to post Proposition 65 signs all around South Palo Alto.


Posted by bikes2work, a resident of Santa Rita (Los Altos)
on Nov 3, 2010 at 12:32 pm

There was an "army" of PG&E workers in Palo Alto along East Bayshore Road this morning. They are digging near Adobe Creek.


Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 3, 2010 at 1:06 pm

A friend and I smelled it in Midtown and tried to report it - to no avail. Perhaps CANS......


Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 3, 2010 at 1:36 pm

Just got a CANS message saying it was a planned purge and that they will be doing the same tomorrow.


Posted by South PA resident, a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Nov 3, 2010 at 1:57 pm

The city used their alert system a moment ago. They're claiming no danger to the public, which is quite obviously false: the odor means that people won't be able to detect an actual leak, which makes any real leaks which do occur much more dangerous.

PG&E should be required to use a filter to remove the odor, or to burn off the discharged gas when they engage in pipeline purging.


Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 3, 2010 at 1:58 pm

JLS middle school was evacuated to the field because of the smell and PAFD were called in.


Posted by South PA resident, a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Nov 3, 2010 at 2:02 pm

Here is the full text of the email the city just sent out:

------------------------

This is a message from the City of Palo Alto Utilities Department.



We have been contacted by several members of the public regarding an odor of natural gas in southern Palo Alto. The City has confirmed that the odor is the result of a controlled release of a significant amount of gas by PG&E during inspection of its gas transmission system in the Mountain View and Palo Alto areas.



In order to safely inspect the inside of the gas transmission line, the purging of gas from the PG&E system was necessary. There is no danger to employees or the public from this situation; however, there will be a slight gas odor in the area until it completely dissipates.



There will likely be another controlled gas release by PG&E on the same pipe section in the early morning hours of Thursday, November 4, prior to 6 am. This release is done at the end of the inspection to purge air out of pipe and bring the line back into operation. Depending on weather conditions, residents may again smell natural gas at that time.



If the situation changes, we will keep you informed.



For additional information about natural gas and gas safety, please visit the City of Palo Alto website at

visit:


Web Link



If you believe you have a gas leak within your residence or business, please call Palo Alto Utilities at 650-329-2579.



This concludes this message from the City of Palo Alto.


Posted by robit noops, a resident of Greenmeadow
on Nov 3, 2010 at 2:13 pm

I smelled gas, and had bubbling in my plumbing. was wondering if natural gas was blocking city plumbing lines.


Posted by resident, a resident of Palo Verde
on Nov 3, 2010 at 2:27 pm

Palo Verde Elementary School was also evacuated to the field due to the incredibly strong smell. They should really alert the schools in the area before hand.


Posted by Midtowner, a resident of Midtown
on Nov 3, 2010 at 2:33 pm

On the other hand, think of this as a good opportunity to practice emergency procedures!


Posted by new in town, a resident of Palo Verde
on Nov 3, 2010 at 3:10 pm

According to one of my kids teachers, four schools in the area were evacuated. They had no advanced warning and it sounds like the city and fire department did not either.

I'm concerned that PG&E does not appear to coordinate all that well with local municipalities. Would they do a better job in a real emergency?


Posted by PA Mom, a resident of Midtown
on Nov 3, 2010 at 4:37 pm

I agree with the above posters. I cannot imagine why the city didn't give a "heads-up" to the local schools. It caused a great deal of concern at El Carmelo. After what happened in San Bruno, one would think that PG&E would be more sensitive to people's concerns.


Posted by Millie, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Nov 3, 2010 at 5:04 pm

If this problem existed hours ago, why are we just now getting alerted at 4:23PM???

A link to the PA Weekly home page isn't exactly useful if there's no story there and we have to go into Town Topics to find out anything.


Posted by Resident, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 3, 2010 at 5:22 pm

I also smelled it on Alma halfway between Embarcadero and Oregon Expy at 8:30 this morning...


Posted by Wondering, a resident of another community
on Nov 3, 2010 at 6:23 pm

Does anyone know why PG&E is so tight-lipped about its gas lines? It seems to me that all their information should be readily available to the public.


Posted by Another Wondering Resident, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 3, 2010 at 8:11 pm

I think that it is outrageous that PG&E did not inform our city about this planned release of gas, even though it occurred in a neighboring city.

Gas being a gas will do what a gas does - travel.

I heard that there is a gas main or station along Alma. Can anyone confirm this, or explain the where the gas control system in this area?

This panic event to our residents, school staff, and our city staff could have been totally avoided if PG&E would have communicated with the City of Palo Alto before proceeding with the purging.


Posted by sharat bodduluri, a resident of Midtown
on Nov 3, 2010 at 8:33 pm

I was at JLS and we evacuated and stayed outside for at least 20 minutes


Posted by Jay Thorwaldson, editor emeritus
on Nov 4, 2010 at 10:22 am

Jay Thorwaldson is a registered user.

Relating to Millie's post above, the Weekly sent out an e-bulletin on the 11 a.m. smell reports about 11:15 a.m. after a resident phoned in a tip (this really helps!) and we confirmed it via Fire Dispatch. After getting further confirmations and details, we posted a story on the website at 11:39 a.m. after activating city people about the complaints. They had not been notified in advance of the gas purge, but initially surmised it was a PG&E operation outside of Palo Alto. More details followed, including comments from a PG&E spokesman that we integrated into the story -- which remained posted until nearly midnight Wednesday. We re-posted an updated story this morning. By the way, people who want to be on top of what's happening may sign up for our e-bulletins (and our 10 a.m. Express e-mail headline feature) by visiting www.PaloAltoOnline.com.


Posted by bad nose, a resident of Greenmeadow
on Nov 4, 2010 at 10:33 am

I smelled it by 24 hr Fitness in Mountain View on California street about 11 a.m. but I thought it was the garbage/methane odor from the landfill! It's happened before when the wind is offshore and we have a Diablo condition.


Posted by Hmmm, a resident of East Palo Alto
on Nov 4, 2010 at 10:40 am

Why woul PG&E care about Palo Alto? It's not a real customer like other cities and they can't be fit to warn other cities about much, so why expect them to cater? Because it's Palo Alto? Puhlease, you don't matter to them.


Posted by Purging Natural Gas, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 4, 2010 at 10:48 am

It is important to burn off the purged natural gas. First, it avoids spreading the smell around, so people don't get complacent about smelling natural gas odorant. Second, natural gas is a potent greenhouse gas, and burning it to produce carbon dioxide actually reduces its greenhouse gas intensity.


Posted by resident, a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 4, 2010 at 12:32 pm

I called the emergency Gas number at 11:33 yesterday as the smell which i originally smelled ten or so minutes earlier was getting stronger and stronger. At 11:33 they knew it was a PG&E controlled purge and said they had already had hundreds of calls!


Posted by Hmmm, a resident of East Palo Alto
on Nov 4, 2010 at 5:46 pm

PG&E is tight lipped about gas lines for several reasons, including wanting to avoid mountains of calls by panicking residents & due to potential terrorist acts.


Posted by anon, a resident of Mountain View
on Nov 4, 2010 at 11:00 pm

Hi, PG&E wasn't tight-lipped, they just didn't inform Palo Alto. My backyard happens to be right next to where PG&E is doing the work in Mt View. PG&E rep came to my front door on Mon and informed me of the work that was to be done. He also dropped off a flier.


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