Flammable gas leaking in river
Mobile Gas officials say there's no hazard, but Coast Guard and others aren't so sure
Mobile Gas Service Corp. officials acknowledged Thursday that a 10-foot-wide ring of bubbling water in the middle of Dog River results from a broken gas main that has been releasing a plume of flammable natural gas into the air above the river for at least a month.
Gas company officials insist that there are no hazards associated with the leak, that boaters will be safe as long as they stay 15 feet from the center of the bubbling pool. They say the company is following all appropriate safety protocols to protect the public until the pipe can be fixed, possibly sometime next week.
"We have been in this business a long time, and that's why we are not afraid to say there is not a hazard," said Wes Phillips, communications officer with Mobile Gas. "We are working with the marine police and the Coast Guard to make sure this is safe while still providing service to customers in the area."
But officials with Alabama's Public Service Commission, which is charged with overseeing pipeline safety, and the U.S. Coast Guard's Marine Safety Office said they were surprised to hear that the leak was still occurring and that there was no way they could guarantee the public's safety in that section of the river.
Chris Harvey, a pipeline safety expert with the PSC, said that under the right conditions, a boat motor's spark plug or a fisherman's cigar could serve as a source of ignition and a subsequent explosion. Coast Guard officials noted that the atmospheric inversion layers so common this time of year could keep the gas from dispersing, thus increasing the likelihood of ignition. Given the variables, they said frequent testing of gas concentrations in the surrounding air would be required to determine a legitimate safe distance.
Mobile Gas officials acknowledge no such testing has been done.
The leak is about 1,500 feet off the south bank of Dog River, a little more than one mile upstream from the Dog River Bridge, and within sight of homes, marinas and the Alba Club.
Four PVC pipes and an orange buoy mark the site. Tatters of yellow tape are wrapped around the pipes. From five feet away, the writing on the tape is illegible, but Mobile Gas officials said the tape is printed with a warning that there is a buried pipeline in the area. The warning apparently makes no mention of the gas leak directly below.
There are no signs visible on the shoreline indicating that a gas line crosses through the area.
On Jan. 30, the Register received calls from concerned boaters who said there was a fountain of water rising several inches above the river's surface. Register reporters called Mobile Gas Co. officials and other local companies in an attempt to determine what might be the cause.
At that time, gas company officials said they had no gas lines in the area.
While working on another story in the Dog River watershed on Wednesday of this week, Register reporters were attracted to a series of PVC pipes and a pool of bubbling water in the middle of the river channel. Not knowing there was a gas leak, and with no warnings visible, they pulled their idling boat to within five feet of the PVC posts to investigate, as recreational boaters passed nearby.
Thursday morning, Mobile Gas spokesman Phillips said that he had been mistaken when he said earlier that the broken pipe did not belong to his company. He said company engineers investigated the site Jan. 31, a day after reporters called, and discovered that they did indeed have a gas main crossing the river. He said initial attempts to fix the pipe had failed.
Coast Guard officials said that a local resident had called the National Response Center in Washington to report the strange bubbling in the river as early as Jan. 21. The Coast Guard's Lt. Richard Sanders said that the Marine Safety Office followed up with calls to the Mobile County Health Department and the Alabama Oil and Gas Board, but were unable to pinpoint the cause of the leak until they received another call from Mobile Gas on Jan. 31.
Sanders said he issued a broadcast warning to local mariners shortly thereafter, and was told by Mobile Gas officials on Feb. 5 that the "problem had been secured, that repairs would be done Feb. 6, and they would call us back if there were any problems."
Sanders paused and asked the reporter: "So the gas wasn't secured?"
Sanders said Mobile Gas had not called back to explain that the gas was still leaking, and "if there were any pending issues that big," he would have been informed by others in the Marine Safety Office.
"It's news to me there is still a release" of gas, said Coast Guard Lt. Commander J.J. Plunkett. "If we had known it was still bubbling quite a bit we would put up some safety notices."
Sanders said he would be contacting officials with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration about the health risks immediately, "and then we'll consider deploying the strike team if they think we need monitoring."
Sanders was referring to the Coast Guard's regional strike team trained to handle chemical spills and emergencies.
Phillips, with Mobile Gas, said that a 20-year-old, 6-inch pipeline running under the river had somehow been creased and broken. Phillips said he was not sure of the cause, though he noted that three dredging contractors were licensed to operate in the area. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials said it had been more than a year since they had done any dredging in the area.
PSC officials said they were told Feb. 11 that a 4-inch pipe had been broken and that repairs would be finished by today .
Phillips, however, said that repairs on the pipe are not scheduled to begin until next week, and that they hope to be finished within three to seven days. He warned that repairs could take longer, since it was an underwater pipe, and a coffer dam would have to be erected in the middle of the river to create a dry working area.
"It's not something that's going to be done in a day," he said.
Casi Callaway, executive director with the local environmental organization Mobile Bay Watch, said she understood that the repairs might be difficult, but couldn't understand why the public was left in the dark for so long.
"This is a perfect example how a lack of communication between industry and the agencies and the public can cause serious harm to the community," said Callaway. "One boat ride past there could potentially cause a major explosion. When something like this happens, we need clearly marked signs, notices in the paper and on television, so people would know to stay away from that area."
Officials with the Alabama Department of Environmental Management said it was unlikely that the natural gas would be a problem to creatures in the water column itself, as most of the methane in the gas would quickly rise to the surface and disperse into the air.
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