by Jay Thorwaldson, Nick Veronin and Chris Kenrick
Palo Alto residents and city and school officials Thursday were asking why Pacific Gas & Electric Co. (PG&E) didn't warn them it was about to purge a major natural-gas line in Mountain View late Wednesday morning.
The strong gas smell drifted through parts of south Palo Alto and Mountain View about 11 a.m. Wednesday, evoking fears of a San Bruno-like explosion and causing 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. 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.
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 (gas) 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."
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.
City Utilities Department officials scrambled to find the source when reports and complaints started pouring in to the city's dispatch center.
Palo Alto Utilities Director Val Fong said shortly after noon that Palo Alto "received no notification from PG&E about the natural gas purging," which was occurring 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, the Weekly's sister paper. 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 and lingered due to lack of a breeze.
The gas did not pose a health or explosion risk, he added.
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.