School district, township were not warned in advance of last week’s incident, officials say

Last updated: October 02. 2013 11:54PM - 1514 Views
SUSAN DENNEY Times Leader Correspondent

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DALLAS TWP. — Williams Companies Inc. has agreed to schedule purges of the township natural gas lines to times when school is not in session, township emergency management coordinator Alan Pugh said Tuesday night.

This decision followed a panic-driven situation at the Dallas schools last week when a heavy smell of mercaptan, an additive to natural gas, caused an emergency response.

A discussion about last week’s controlled release of natural gas took up most of the monthly supervisors’ work session.

The gas was released by Williams Companies Inc., owner of the Transco pipeline that runs through the township. Supervisor Liz Martin led the discussion by saying that the township was not contacted in advance.

“We were not notified,” she said of the incident. “Nobody left a number or a name.”

Pugh said that he had received notification from The Williams Companies Inc. “three minutes after the gas was released.”

The company said that it had not notified him earlier because its schedule had accelerated.

Pugh pointed out gas companies are required to contact only the county when work is being done on gas lines. They contact other groups as a courtesy.

The public had never been in danger, since methane floats up, Pugh said. Emergency responders with meters proved quickly that there was no gas at ground level.

But the strong smell of the natural gas odorant mercaptan stayed down at ground level and created panic among some students. Many parents came to the school district’s buildings to pick up their children.

According to Pugh, the gas smell outside led school officials to shut down the air-conditioning system and to put the students in the auditorium. He admitted a natural impulse is to go outside when gas is smelled, but the threat was external and that the school district acted properly.

During citizen comments, resident Jane Tolomello expressed anger over the situation. Tolomello lives near the gas gathering line and was not notified by Williams, she said.

“I shouldn’t have to call Liz (Martin) and Alan (Pugh).” She was also distressed by the events at the school. “I’ve counted on an evacuation plan.”

Martin replied, “We can only ask the gas company to notify us.”

Resident Mary Rodriguez said, “I don’t think anyone should be placing blame.” She added the incident was “a godsend, a little test” that showed that the emergency plan at the school needs to be better.

Police Chief Robert Jolley said parents picking up children only made the situation worse. He pointed out that the mercaptan smell was outside and that every time the door was opened to let out a child, the odor was let inside.

Martin responded to this by saying, “Had the district known that this was going on, the amount of parents would have been substantially less.”

After the meeting, Martin told The Times Leader the incident had a plus side. “Many debriefings and many hours were spent with the township, Williams, Transco and the school district,” she said, “and I believe now we understand each other better and we can move forward.”

In other business:

• Supervisors will advertise a public meeting with representatives of the Dallas School District to discuss a possible joint grant for a school resource officer.

• There will be a public hearing at 6 p.m. Oct. 15 before the regular supervisors’ meeting to gather comments on changing the township’s Subdivision and Land Development Ordinance (SALDO) amendment.

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