SEARSMONT, Maine — In the early morning hours of Sunday, March 7, New England Road residents were awakened by a loud hissing noise coming from the new natural gas compressor station on their quiet country road.
Several people, including Susan Totman and her sons, soon began to get headaches and nausea from the “reeking” gas smell filling the air.
Alarm bells rang in Totman’s mind almost louder than the high-pitched bell actually jangling at the Maritimes & Northeast Pipeline station.
“We’re very concerned,” Totman said Tuesday afternoon, just before a question-and-answer forum held by the company. “We were worried about our safety and our health.”
The hissing noise, the strong chemical smell and the noisy alarm — which could be heard three miles away in Searsmont village — created consternation among many residents, some of whom weren’t sure whom to notify or how to contact staff off-hours at the Halifax, New Brunswick-based company.
Finally, at about 11 a.m. a neighbor called 911, and a company technician arrived soon afterward to fix whatever problem was happening behind the facility’s high security fence.
By 1 p.m., the hissing stopped and the rotten-egg smell began to dissipate. The headaches and the questions, however, lingered.
Just what had gone wrong at the compressor station, which is one of seven in Maine? Each station is designed to regulate the pressure of the natural gas, which flows southwesterly in a pipeline from Canada at the rate of as much as 1.2 billion cubic feet per day. One cubic foot is roughly equivalent to the volume inside a basketball.
And how could Searsmont residents be assured they would be safe in the future, either from a mechanical malfunction or intentional domestic terrorism?
Maritimes & Northeast officials tried to put those worries to rest Tuesday evening at a question-and-answer session and facility tour. The session was advertised as an “open house,” but Totman cut to the chase immediately after the floor was opened to questions from the 30 or so community members in attendance.
“We’d like to know what happened that day,” she said. “We need to know what’s going on. I think we all have valid concerns. Our whole region reeked of gas for over 10 hours. That’s a concern.”
In response, Don Thompson, Maritimes & Northeast’s Massachusetts-based area manager, explained that despite the stench and the noise, all that happened that day was the malfunction of a 1-inch steel “relief valve” with a rubber gasket. The valve is designed to reduce pressure from a scrubber, a piece of machinery — or “vessel,” in the company’s terminology — that cleans the natural gas. Although some gas did escape the pipeline, he explained, it wasn’t much. The malfunction may have been caused by ice on the gasket, he said.
“It wasn’t nearly a catastrophic failure,” he said in an interview after the session.
The smell that bothered and sickened neighbors was not the gas itself, Thompson said, but methyl mercaptan, a chemical with a foul-egg aroma that is added to the odorless natural gas so that people are able to detect gas leaks. While natural gas is lighter than air and quickly dissipates in the atmosphere, the mercaptan is heavier and hangs around much longer.
“What you guys were smelling — it’s not a safety hazard per se,” he told the crowd.
Maritimes & Northeast Pipeline carries natural gas to Massachusetts from the liquefied natural gas terminal in Saint John, New Brunswick, the Sable Island gas fields off Nova Scotia and other sources. Compressor stations at Baileyville, Wood Chopping Ridge in northern Hancock County, Brewer, Searsmont, Richmond, Westbrook and Eliot maintain pressure and speed in the pipeline.
Along the way, some of the gas is diverted to commercial customers in Maine including Bangor Gas and Casco Bay Energy Co. in Veazie.
Though the gas flows under Searsmont, residents of that community are not able to heat their homes with it, as no company has yet provided infrastructure to make that possible.
According to the Maritimes & Northeast Pipeline’s Web site, its facilities are inspected periodically by U.S. Department of Transportation officials to ensure they are complying with regulations.
Thompson said that while the Searsmont facility is not staffed 24 hours a day, Maritimes & Northeast workers as far away as Houston, Texas, do constantly monitor it via a complex system of cameras and sensors. The gas that escaped on March 7, which lowered the pressure in the pipeline by no more than 1 pound, was not enough to trigger any of the company’s alarms.
He encouraged residents to call 911 if they hear or smell anything troublesome in the future at the station.
The explanation didn’t reassure everyone, including New England Road resident Beverly Flores.
“It was very frightening,” she said of that day. “I’m very worried about it.”
But after touring the facility and seeing more of the safety features — including a stack designed to vent all the gas in the facility safely within two minutes — other residents felt more comfortable with their new neighbor.
“This is a self-contained facility,” said area supervisor Steve Leary. “It can take care of itself.”
One impressive sight was the compressor building, which features tons of machinery that is all powered by air, not electricity, for fear of generating a spark.
“It’s answered a lot of questions,” said Alan Hills, a father of three who lives nearby. “I need that assurance that we’re going to be safe.”
Totman said she wished there had been a tour “a long time ago.”
“I don’t think I’ll ever be entirely comfortable next to it,” she said. “But I feel safer than I did when I walked in here.”