TORRINGTON – Portions of town around West 23rd Avenue between Main and A streets were evacuated Wednesday in response to a leak from a broken Black Hills Energy gas main in an alley in that block.
A crew from Bivens Construction of Torrington was working on a portion of a $164,000 sewer line replacement project at the south end of an alley near West 23rd Avenue at about 9:45 a.m. The bucket-loader being used struck what company owner Jason Bivens described as a portion of an old natural gas line, sheering it off a two-inch main line, sending gas spewing into the air.
“What we hit wasn’t ever marked,” Bivens said. “It was a piece that was stubbed off of the main. It had been abandoned and capped.”
Bivens confirmed his company had contacted OneCall, a locator service, to confirm and mark the locations of underground utilities. This particular piece of pipe – approximately 12-inches long, Bivens said – was not marked on any utility maps.
“Black Hills (Energy) said it would have been near impossible to pick up on a locator,” Bivens said. “Unless it’s mapped exactly where it’s at, it’s almost impossible to locate or relocate that thing.”
Initial reports indicated the break was in a four-inch gas main, prompting the city to issue evacuation orders for a four-block radius around the location that included homes, several downtown businesses and Torrington High School, said Chuck Kenyon, firefighter and public information officer for the Torrington Volunteer Fire Department. It was eventually learned the line was only two-inches in diameter, which prompted officials to reduce the size of the evacuation zone.
The city Code Red emergency alert system was activated for a “targeted alert,” Kenyon said. He did not know the exact number of homes and businesses affected by the evacuation order. According to information from Emergency Management Coordinator Craig Murphy, the system made 567 automated calls and sent 70 text messages to Code Red subscribers, receiving 327 acknowledgements of the alert.
TVFD crews were on the scene in minutes as Torrington Police, Goshen County Sherriff’s Department and county Emergency Management staff cordoned off the area. A crew from Black Hills Energy was also in the area, monitoring air quality and natural gas concentrations, fearful of potential fires. Because natural gas is lighter than air, it wasn’t necessarily a concern in the original excavation hole,
“What we have to be concerned about is the wind taking it, carrying it someplace and making a pocket,” Kenyon said. “Black Hills Energy have crews here, working in the area, walking through the area with gas monitors to make sure the concentration doesn’t reach flammable levels.
Electrical power was also turned off on a four-block stretch of Main Street and West A Street around the area of the break to prevent a spark from igniting the gas, Kenyon said.
“The actual breach of the line is in the alley at (West 23rd Avenue),” Kenyon said. “The wind is the big thing. The wind has been confused, is the best way to describe it.
“It’s been running generally out of the west, but it’s been running to the northeast and to the southeast,” he said. “It keeps moving back and forth like that, so we’re concerned with the travel of natural gas.”
A Black Hills Energy repair crew was initially dispatched from the Douglas area, interim Torrington Police Chief Michael Matthews said. A closer crew, out of Cheyenne, was located and dispatched, and arrived shortly after noon to make the repairs, which were completed by about 1:45 p.m.
Bivens, the owner of the company working on the sewer line, said his crew followed their standard practices when digging in the area of known natural gas lines. In addition to making the required call to the OneCall location service, the crew used hand shovels to expose the pipe before bringing in heavy equipment. He estimated the piece struck by the bucket loader was a service line that had been abandoned when an old building had been demolished.
Bivens Construction has performed similar service line removals for the city in the past, Bivens said. But when it’s done today, the city requires the service line be taken out all the way back to the main pipe, leaving nothing protruding.
“When we remove utilities for the city of Torrington, (code) requires we go all the way back to the main, exactly for this reason,” Bivens said. “When you’re excavating along a gas line in an alley and you’re not aware of these things, this is the situation that happens.”