WATERVILLE — The most serious natural gas leak fire officials have dealt with yet in the city occurred Tuesday afternoon at Motor Supply Co. on College Avenue, forcing an evacuation of the business.

The gas leak, reported at 3 p.m., prompted a response from technicians with Summit Natural Gas of Maine, which owns the pipe. The leak was in a 1-inch line that goes from the street to the business and was ice-related, according to fire Chief David LaFountain.

Summit Natural Gas officials responded at 3:36 p.m., isolated the leak at 3:40 p.m. and fixed the problem, which occurred where the pipe connects to the meter up against the building, LaFountain said.

“Basically, what happened was the freezing actually created separation between the threaded end and opened up the pipe,” LaFountain said at 4:30 p.m.

When firefighters first went inside the building, they tested the gas level inside and found it was about 1 percent, according to fire Capt. Shawn Esler, who investigated the incident.

At the scene, two firefighters emerged from the building to say that level had risen to about 1.5 percent.

“That’s not good,” LaFountain responded.

He explained that the gas leak was outside, but was infiltrating to the inside of the building, which must be ventilated before it gets to an explosive potential.

Esler said later that if the leak had not been fixed, there could have been a fire or an explosion.

Motor Supply Co. is just across busy College Avenue from the Huhtamaki factory.

LaFountain said at the scene that the Public Utilities Commission requires Summit officials to be on the scene within an hour of a report of a gas leak.

He said fire officials have responded to other natural gas leaks in the city, but “not to this scale.”

“We’ve had a couple residences that have had minor leaks inside the homes, but this is the first one where it’s a 1-inch line and we’re getting a high percentage inside a structure.”

When the leaks occurred in homes, fire officials went inside with meters to determine if there were problems, he said.

“Normally, Summit is on scene by the time we get there,” he said. “This time, we got called first; we got here first. We called Summit on the emergency line. Their response was timely. I suspect they probably were at their office over in Winslow.”

Motor Supply Co. co-owner Rick York said this is the first winter the company has used natural gas, and Tuesday was the first time there had been a problem. Standing in the parking lot with employees, York recalled smelling the natural gas additive that signaled there was a leak Tuesday. Mercaptan, a harmless but pungent-smelling gas, is added to natural gas so people know when a leak occurs.

“One of my guys walked out back and he yelled to me, and I walked around the corner and went ‘Whoa,'” York said. “That’s when I told the guys, ‘Get out.'”

He said several people were in the building when the leak was detected.

LaFountain said he appreciates the fact that the people at Motor Supply recognized there was a problem, called the Fire Department, turned the power off and cleared the building — and that the problem was solved.

“It was a good operation,” LaFountain said.

Amy Calder — 861-9247

[email protected]

Twitter: @AmyCalder17

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