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.