Lents gas main break darkens many neighborhoods

Here’s how a construction accident in Lents cut electricity to much of inner Southeast Portland neighborhoods for hours …

In the Lents neighborhood of outer East Portland, along SE Foster Road, this was the scene of what officials call a “significant” gas main rupture.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton

Construction contractors, drilling a horizontal hole across SE Foster Road at 102nd Avenue, hit a natural gas main at 5:17 p.m. on May 15. While usually something like this is just a localized incident, results of this particular underground industrial accident were experienced for hours as far away as Sellwood and several other neighborhoods near the Willamette River.

Responding Portland Fire & Rescue (PF&R) officials called it a “significant’ gas line rupture, and ordered evacuations from businesses and homes along SE Foster Road, from SE 101st to 104th Avenue, that evening.

Although his business survived Johnson Creek floods for years, Gary Sargent Sr., of Sargent’s Motorsports, says he became very concerned when told to evacuate – because the gas that had leaked into his building was a “potential bomb, ready to go off”.

Gary Sargent Sr., and his crew at Sargent’s Motorsports, on the northeast corner of the affected intersection, watched the incident unfold – and soon, they were told to run for their lives.

“We were getting ready to close up for the day when it happened, just starting to bring in our motorcycles on display in front of the store; my nephew said he smelled natural gas,” said Sargent the following day.

“We have an evacuation plan, and then I also smelled it; I thought natural gas was somehow leaking here in our building, and we all got out,” Sargent told East Portland News.

In front of the store, and looking across SE Foster Road, his view of what was happening was distorted by shimmering diffraction in the air caused by natural gas belching out what turned out to be a 4-inch main, buried below the pavement near his property line.

Across the street from a massive PGE electrical power substation, a NW Natural worker measures the amount of gas coming up from the curb. Gary Sargent photo

“This wasn’t just a ‘leak’ as some reported, but a tremendous volume of natural gas billowing,” Sargent recalled.

Soon, PF&R Lents Station Engine 11 arrived, along with NW Natural workers. “After they used a meter to measure the gas concentration in our building, they said it was a ‘potential bomb, ready to go off’ – and moved us more a block to the north,” Sargent said.

With their personal vehicles all parked within the spewing gas cloud, none of the staff could leave until given the “all clear” at about 9:00 p.m. that evening.

What Sargent didn’t find out until later, was that a PF&R Battalion Chief had called Portland General Electric (PGE), asking them to shut down their massive electrical substation near the scene, out of fear that even a single spark could have set off a disaster.

Soon, as many as 30 NW Natural supervisors and workers are at the scene. Gary Sargent photo

“The electrical outage began at 7:26 p.m. because any kind of spark from the equipment could have ignited the natural gas,” explained PGE spokesperson Steve Corson. “No sparks were seen at the substation, but if a fuse tripped, or a switch operated, it could create a spark.”

About five miles west of the incident, about 36,000 residents and businesses, located in portions of the Reed, Eastmoreland, Sellwood, Brooklyn, Creston-Kenilworth and Westmoreland neighborhoods lost electric power just as the sun set. Traffic signals went out on SE McLoughlin Boulevard from the north end of the viaduct near OMSI south to the Clackamas County line.

While the TriMet MAX Light Rail Orange Line kept running – it’s powered by an independent circuit – the elevators and station lighting went out at the Bybee Boulevard Station.

About two hours after a 4-inch gas main was cracked open by an errant underground drilling operation, officials asked PGE to shut down this major electrical substation.

“Shutting down that substation had a cascading effect, because it routes electricity to several major electrical distribution ‘feeder’ lines; and each ‘feeder’ serves from hundreds to thousands of customers,” explained Corson.

There hasn’t been an official reason given why almost two hours passed before the request to cut the power came in. Corson surmised, “Gas leaks are cumulative over time; and as time went by, the gas concentration may have increased in the area.”

“Many customers were back on an hour; power was restored to the westernmost affected neighborhoods an hour and ten minutes later, and most power was back on by 10:00 p.m.,” Corson said, adding that at about 8:30 p.m., a NW Natural crew had managed to seal the broken gas main.

NW Natural supervisors devise a plan to shut of the natural gas spewing from a ruptured gas main. Gary Sargent photo

Sargent recalled, “They waited a while for the gas to dissipate, and then allowed us back into our shop, after they checked it, at about 9:00 p.m.

“Those three hours were a frightening time,” Sargent commented, “but fortunately, our family business was okay.”

Now parked, this is the horizontal under-street drilling rig that accidently tore into a natural gas main.

How did this accident occur? A person from the contracting company said they were driving a pipe under the road, from south to north,” recounted Sargent. “Apparently, these directional, horizontal, under-street drilling rigs can ‘steer’ the pipe. In this case, I was told as it neared the northern curb, the shaft went up dramatically [by itself], and ruptured the gas main.”

© 2018 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News™

 

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