‘The most terrifying experience’: Residents question safety in wake of malfunction at Searsmont natural gas pipeline station

Susan Totman stands in her small family garage business on Jan. 7. She expressed her concerns about the natural gas compressor station she lives near in Searsmont.
Susan Totman stands in her small family garage business on Jan. 7. She expressed her concerns about the natural gas compressor station she lives near in Searsmont.
Posted Jan. 15, 2014, at 5:31 a.m.
Steve Leary, an area supervisor for Maritimes & Northeast Pipeline, leads a group of Searsmont residents on a tour of the New England Road natural gas compressor station in this April 2010 file photo.
Abigal Curtis
Steve Leary, an area supervisor for Maritimes & Northeast Pipeline, leads a group of Searsmont residents on a tour of the New England Road natural gas compressor station in this April 2010 file photo.

SEARSMONT, Maine — First came the noise late New Year’s Eve at the Searsmont natural gas pipeline compressor station, so loud that it caused nearby homes to shake and some residents, frightened by the jet-engine-like roar, to pack up their cars and flee for the night.

Then came the questions, as some members of the normally quiet rural community wondered how safe — or dangerous — it is to live so close to the Maritimes & Northeast Pipeline facility. The station was shut down for more than a week after the incident, though company officials confirmed Monday afternoon that it was running again.

Marylee Hanley of Spectra Energy, the company that owns and operates the pipeline, wrote in a series of terse emails that she would not divulge any more information until a public meeting at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 21, at the Searsmont Community Building. Town officials asked that the company hold a meeting in order for residents to get some answers.

“The necessary remedial action has been taken,” Hanley wrote Tuesday morning. “We will provide information on the series of events that occurred and the subsequent actions taken at the public meeting we are hosting.”

The roaring noise, which lasted from just before midnight New Year’s Eve to almost 12:40 a.m. New Year’s Day, was caused by natural gas venting into the air after sensors at the New England Road station detected an equipment malfunction. A pressure valve vented the gas outside, and the facility was automatically shut down.

A compressor station is located every 70 miles along the American portion of the pipeline, which runs for 338 miles from Maine to Massachusetts. Officials at the company initially speculated that the recent extreme cold may have contributed to the equipment malfunction, but a Spectra Energy spokesperson said that the Searsmont station was the only one to undergo an emergency shutdown over New Year’s.

That did little to quell the concerns of neighbors like Susan Totman.

“I want to see that we live in a safe community,” said Totman, whose home is about 1,200 feet from the compressor station. “When it initially went off, I thought it was an earthquake. Then it sounded like a jet was above my house. I looked outside. I thought there was a fire. It was absolutely the most terrifying experience I’ve ever had.”

That night, she called 911, then the emergency number for the pipeline company.

“The guy that answered the phone [at the pipeline company] was clearly confused and a little bit panicked,” she recalled. “I said ‘Are we safe?’ And he said, ‘I can’t tell you that.’”

The Totmans, worried about their many pets, stayed at their home but sent their son and his family to a friend’s house in another town. A half hour after the noise began, Totman called the company’s emergency number again to find out what was going on.

“They said ‘someone’s on the way,’ like it was no big deal,” she said. “I didn’t stop shaking for hours. I was nauseous,” she said. “I don’t even know if it was from the gas or the terror.”

Totman believes that Spectra Energy officials have minimized the incident, telling residents there was no danger that night, and the automatic venting was a normal response to a breakdown in the system.

On Jan. 2, Susan Waller, a spokeswoman for Houston-based Spectra Energy, said that her company had been responsive to the concerns of abutting landowners. At that time, the company had directly contacted eight residents and the town’s first selectman, Bruce Brierley.

“He’s been fully informed,” Hanley said a few days after the incident. “If he has any questions, he’ll reach out.”

But Brierley said Tuesday that he doesn’t have a lot of information either.

“I know very little about it,” he said. “Last I knew, they were working on it and trying to find out what the problem was. I do know there are some pretty upset people in that area. I’ve had several people who approached me — they were really terrified that night.”

He said he anticipates there will be a lively discussion at the Jan. 21 meeting with the company.

Waller said that in the event of a true emergency, local responders would evacuate residents and control traffic, while engineers would remotely shut the valves down to prevent gas from going in the Searsmont facility.

Company officials did remotely shut down the gas going into the Searsmont station after the equipment malfunction that night, but no evacuation was required, she said.

Chief James Ames of the Searsmont Volunteer Fire Department said he has a key to get through the first gate that blocks access to the compressor station. Beyond that gate, the firefighters must wait for company officials to give them information or further instructions. When the gas vented so loudly late on New Year’s Eve, Assistant Fire Chief Wayne Woodbury waited at the gate for about 45 minutes until a company representative drove in and asked him to make sure no one else came in to the compressor station. Ten minutes later, the noise started dying down. Woodbury called Spectra’s emergency phone number.

“They said everything was all set, and we could stand down,” he said Tuesday. “I talked to them a week or so ago, and they still hadn’t found out for sure what the problem was that caused it.”

In general, Ames said firefighters can do little at the compressor station.

“What I can do is pretty much nothing,” Ames said. “We can’t stop it. We can’t do anything.”

He said a lot of people called him immediately after the noisy night, and some from at least two towns away heard it. Others told him they could smell a faint rotten egg smell emitting from the station.

“A lot of people are scared to death of this thing,” Ames said.

This fall, Spectra mailed safety brochures to people who live or work near their natural gas pipeline facilities. The pamphlet includes information about the signs of a natural gas pipeline leak, such as a blowing or hissing sound, a gaseous or ‘rotten egg’ odor, flames and dead or discolored vegetation in an otherwise green area. Hazards associated with a pipeline leak are dizziness or suffocation if the leak occurs in a confined space, ignition or fire, potential explosion or projectiles ejected from the force of escaping gas. If there is a possible pipeline leak, people are asked to evacuate the area, avoid open flames, not introduce ignition sources, including cellphones or pagers, and not start or turn off motor vehicles.

It is unclear how a person is expected to evacuate.

“Run like hell,” some locals speculated.

According to Hanley, concerned residents should “either call 911 or call Maritimes’ gas control center.”

The vented methane gas is not considered to be an acute hazard by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. Thomas Smith, an oil and hazardous materials responder with the agency, said a couple of days after the incident that because the gas dissipates quickly, it has a very low probability of flame hazard.

“That doesn’t mean that there’s a zero percent probability,” he said.

Should there be a fire at the facility, what would typically happen is that the gas would burn to the top of the pressure release valve and “look like a big blow torch,” not a fireball, he said.

His agency did not receive an emergency call that night and was not required to be notified. If they had been called, staffers would have gone to Searsmont to monitor the air quality around the gas venting, but after the fact, there’s nothing he can do.

“From an environmental cleanup standpoint, there’s nothing for us to do,” he said. “It’s gone.”

In fact, the incident fell only under the regulation of the U.S. Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration. The Washington, D.C.-based agency oversees interstate natural gas transmission lines. Damon Hill, a public affairs specialist with the agency, said Monday that officials are reviewing what happened.

“There was an incident,” he said. “We are investigating that issue. I don’t have much information to provide at this time. We are definitely looking into the cause of what made that emergency shutdown occur.”

To notify the Maine Department of Environmental Protection about future environmental concerns, call 800-482-0777. For Spectra Energy’s emergency number, call 800-231-7794.

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