AUGUSTA — Public safety officials got a scare Tuesday night after an apparent air leak in an inactive natural gas pipeline blew off a manhole cover and cracked pavement on Arsenal Street.
There were no injuries in the incident, reported at 9:18 p.m. near the former, now-vacant MaineGeneral Medical Center building on Augusta’s east side. The pipeline, operated by Summit Natural Gas of Maine, has not been powered up and is free of gas.
However, for the better part of an hour, the line break had city fire crews and police treating the line as if it were charged with gas, calling both companies engaged in Augusta’s natural gas business to respond to the scene without knowing for a time exactly whose pipeline it was that failed.
The other company, Maine Natural Gas, powered up its Augusta-only network in late October. Summit, however, is still putting the finishing touches on its pipeline, set to run from Richmond to Madison via Augusta. Michael Duguay, Summit’s director of business development, said last week that the company will power its system up by mid-December.
At the scene shortly after the manhole blowout, Sgt. Vicente Morris of the Augusta Police Department said just before 10 p.m. that natural gas companies were telling police that it was Summit’s pipeline, but that was still “to be determined.”
Jerry Dostie, Augusta’s street superintendent, said the city has plans on file that show where each company has pipe. But those plans are “not easily accessible” in an emergency, he said.
“After this evening, we may have to do something about that,” Dostie said, adding that he expects the companies to digitize plans this winter.
On Tuesday night, Summit was running air tests on the pipeline area of the network including Arsenal Street, said Hector Guerra, the company’s lead inspector, who got to the scene around 10:30 p.m., after Maine Natural Gas crews responded. Guerra said the company has run between 20 and 30 tests network-wide so far.
During the tests, Guerra said the company checks less than a mile of pipe and takes pressure readings. He said he didn’t know what exactly happened, but it was obvious that air had leaked from the pipe just south of the old hospital building and caused the damage.
As a precaution, police and fire officials briefly evacuated residents of nearby apartment buildings within 200 feet of the manhole cover, where some pavement was cracked and some was turned to dust. The last of the hospital’s patients were moved to MaineGeneral’s new hospital on Nov. 10.
People were let back into their homes around 10 p.m. after it was determined there wasn’t a gas leak and the scene was deemed safe, Fire Department Battalion Chief Daniel Guimond said. Police were initially told there was steam coming from the hole, Morris said, but Guimond speculated that it was likely dust from the pavement.
Still, early on, the scene worried officials: Guimond said he could hear the hole “roaring like a jet engine” because of intense air pressure as he approached. He said it was necessary for officials to treat the incident like a gas leak until they could determine what had happened.
Guimond said the company would likely be digging up and replacing the pipe soon, while Guerra said the contractor that installed the pipe was coming to inspect it. He said his company takes all leaks seriously.
“If somebody was near it, it may (have) hurt them,” Guerra said.