Fire officials defend propane as safe after second Maine home explosion in five months

An aerial view of the devastation caused by an explosion Tuesday on Gables Drive in Yarmouth.
Russ Dillingham | Sun Journal
An aerial view of the devastation caused by an explosion Tuesday on Gables Drive in Yarmouth.
Posted June 26, 2013, at 4:10 p.m.
Workmen erect a fence around the remains of Bluff Road duplex in Bath Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013, which was destroyed by an explosion from a propane tank leak, killing Dale Ann Fussell, 64, Tuesday morning.
Workmen erect a fence around the remains of Bluff Road duplex in Bath Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013, which was destroyed by an explosion from a propane tank leak, killing Dale Ann Fussell, 64, Tuesday morning. Buy Photo

YARMOUTH, Maine — A Yarmouth home explosion Tuesday that killed one man and injured at least three others bore a striking similarity to a deadly blast in Bath less than five months earlier — both obliterated homes, claimed lives and were blamed on propane leaks.

In the aftermath of the latest explosion, propane industry executives and fire officials said the fuel is safe to use, and that homeowners with any concerns should feel free to call providers with questions.

“Without safe, happy customers we don’t have any business,” said Joe Rose, president and CEO of the Propane Gas Association of New England. “I know there will be a lot of companies in Maine getting calls from people who are nervous, and they’ll be prepared to respond.”

On Tuesday morning, a Yarmouth condominium was leveled and its resident, 66-year-old Peter Corey, was killed by a concussive blast felt miles away. Three others were transported to the hospital with minor injuries, and witnesses described the scene as leaving little more than splinters of wood and insulation specks that fell from the sky like snow.

Investigators from the state fire marshal’s office declared Wednesday that the cause of the explosion was likely a propane leak.

In February, a single-story duplex in Bath’s Atlantic Townhouses apartment complex — often still referred to by its previous name of Hyde Park — was similarly disintegrated in an instance that claimed the life of 64-year-old Dale Ann Fussell and injured four others. In that case, investigators blamed the blast on a propane leak as well.

Bath Fire Chief Stephen Hinds told the BDN Tuesday that the incident in his city represented an aberration from more than a decade of largely problem-free use of propane in Bath in his time there. He said that in order for a propane home heating system to cause an explosion, “something out of the ordinary” must have happened.

Hinds said state investigators have yet to turn over to him a final report about what, specifically, ignited the propane in the Bath case.

“There are a number of things that can go wrong, as there can with any number of heating systems,” Hinds said. “It is unique that we’ve had these two in just a handful of months. It’s just not a common problem. … Ordinarily, these things function perfectly — they function fine.”

Despite the two high-profile home explosions, Sgt. Ken Grimes of the fire marshal’s office warned homeowners not to jump to any conclusions about using propane for heat.

“Propane is in thousands of homes in Maine,” Grimes told reporters at the scene in Yarmouth Tuesday. “If there’s one instance out of thousands of homes, people should not be concerned that it’s a problem fuel.”

Rose said that “in New England, there are almost a million homes that use propane every day, and these incidents are extremely rare.”

That sentiment was echoed by Jamie Py, president of the Maine Energy Marketers Association.

“Like anything out there, there are going to be situations where accidents can happen and something goes terribly wrong, and it’s obviously a tragedy when somebody loses a life or gets hurt,” Py said. “But given how many homes throughout the country and in Maine have it for central heat, for fireplaces, for grills, for ovens and stoves and lights — it’s an extremely rare event when something like that happens.”

U.S. Census figures claim that just under 7 percent of Maine homes are heated by propane, but Py said the fuel system is easy to install, competitively priced and is still growing in popularity in the state. This month, the Governor’s Energy Office reported that propane prices dropped to $2.61 per gallon, compared to $3.38 per gallon for No. 2 heating oil.

Propane produces less energy when burned than heating oil, however, so when adjusted to a common figure of cost per million BTU, propane finds itself more expensive than fuel oil or natural gas, but less costly than electric heat.

“What I hear from members and from builders is that 7 out of 10 or 8 out of 10 new homes in Maine are being built with propane,” he said.

That means there are more Mainers who should be aware of how to use propane safely, said Mark Anderson, safety director at Maine oil and propane dealer Dead River Co.

Anderson said homeowners using or considering use of propane should contact a licensed provider with any questions or concerns, and should never try to adjust or inspect their tank on their own. Maintaining a propane system should be left to professional technicians, he said, and added that an odor additive that smells like rotten eggs is added to propane as a warning agent to alert people when there’s a leak.

“It’s not just Dead River — our competitors out there are concerned about this as well,” Anderson said. “Nobody wants to see any loss of life or devastation like what happened yesterday. It reinforces our already established safety procedures. This is why we do things the way that we do them.”

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