Propane leak forces evacuations in Brewer

Posted Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:16 a.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 7:08 p.m.

BREWER, Maine — A discarded cigarette or spark from a passing car could have caused serious problems for those dealing with Saturday’s propane leak at Irving Energy, and that is why traffic was diverted and residents were evacuated, Brewer fire Capt. Brent Melvin said Sunday.

“If it had found an ignition source, that would have been very bad,” he said.

The cause of the leak still is under investigation, Sheldon Illsley, Irving Energy operation manager for New England, said Sunday.

Traffic into Brewer on the Interstate 395 bridge, along South Main Street and into the East-West Industrial Park was diverted at around 4:15 p.m., and residents living between Maple and Grove streets were evacuated as a precautionary measure, Brewer police Sgt. Anthony Pinette said Sunday.

Firefighters used three fire hoses and a technique called “fogging” to direct the leaking propane, a heavy gas that lingers along the ground when released, away from workers who were emptying the tank, Melvin said.

Employees at Irving noticed the 60,000-gallon tank, which held about 24,000 gallons of liquefied propane, was leaking around 4 p.m. Saturday, Illsley said.

“We did have a leak on the top of the tank in the pressure relief valve,” he said. “Our whole focus was to evacuate the tank to relieve the pressure off the tank.”

Irving staff immediately called the Brewer Fire Department and the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, which is protocol, and began to empty the propane into tankers.

After several hours, “we were successful in getting the product contained and the pressure relieved,” Illsley said.

Bangor police assisted Maine State Police troopers diverting traffic along the Bangor side of the I-395 bridge and Brewer police officers and Public Works crews set up barriers to block traffic at the junction of Wilson and South Main streets, along South Main south of the bridge and into the industrial park from Parkway South.

While Irving crews worked to empty the massive tank, Brewer firefighters provided a measure of safety by fogging the area, said Melvin, who added the propane smell was strong in the area of South Main Street and Industrial Park Drive.

“We actually [sprayed] our fire hoses on a fairly wide fog pattern to both direct where the propane goes and disperse it,” he said. “The hose creates its own wind. They have a lot of pressure,” which pushed the gas away from workers.

“The trucks load at one end of the tank, and we set up to push it to the other end of the tank so they could offload that tank,” Melvin said. “It provided them a degree of safety.”

Brewer firefighters and police went door-to-door along Maple, Getchell, Burr, Winter and High streets and to businesses inside the industrial park to evacuate people.

Jason Snow, who lives on Getchell Street, said firefighters knocked on his door around 6:50 p.m.

“They said the Irving storage tank was leaking and, ‘You gotta go,’” he said Saturday night. “One of my neighbors didn’t want to leave, and my landlord didn’t want to leave.”

Snow left his apartment but went back shortly afterward to get work clothes he needed for Sunday morning.

“They didn’t want to let me back in,” he said of police, who were blocking roadways. Snow ended up getting his work clothes and went to his wife’s house to await word he could go home.

A firefighter told him that Brewer Auditorium was open for those who needed a place to go. Melvin said some residents did go to the auditorium to wait out the evacuation, which continued until about 12:30 a.m. Sunday. At that point, roadways were reopened and evacuated people were allowed to go home.

No injures were reported.

“Our whole focus last night was to work close with emergency response officials to make sure we took care of the immediate issue, which was getting the leak stopped,” Illsley said.

Irving crews spent Sunday investigating the cause of the valve malfunction, he said.

Illsley said Irving staff acted correctly and worked well with local emergency responders and the DEP, which tested the air quality to ensure it was safe.

With propane leaks, “there are always risks, but as long as everyone is following proper procedures, you can manage that,” he said.

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