Fumes lead to two-block evacuation

Published on Thu, Sep 18, 2003 by Rebecca Schwarz Kopf

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Fumes lead to two-block evacuation

By Rebecca Schwarz Kopf

Two blocks were closed off and several buildings evacuated following the detection of potentially explosive fumes in a sanitary sewer manhole on D Street, last Thursday morning.

According to public works director Steve Banham, operators at the city of Blaine wastewater treatment plant detected petroleum-like odors at the plant around 8:30 a.m. Two hours later, the public works department located a strong concentration of potentially explosive fumes, later determined to be gasoline, inside a sanitary sewer manhole located immediately north of the former Denny�s restaurant on D Street. Several businesses were then evacuated and a two-block area around the suspected location was closed off as a safety perimeter.

Because the sanitary sewer is a relatively closed system, responders believe that someone introduced the product through a single point, such as a sink or a toilet. According to North Whatcom Fire and Rescue Services division chief Jim Rutherford, who took over as incident commander at the site, officials initially believed this was the cause; however, it turned out to be gas leaking from an abandoned pipeline.

Banham confirmed this and said test results were received Tuesday stating gasoline leaked into the system through an old, abandoned pipe from a manhole just west of the Shell station on D Street.

An investigation is continuing into where the gasoline actually came from, but officials think it may have come from a nearby working gas station, specifically the Shell station. �We�re still exploring that, but it looks like it,� Banham said, noting the station owner is cooperating.

Responders initially included North Whatcom Fire and Rescue Services and Blaine city police; however, the incident was upgraded to a Level II Haz Mat incident, and personnel from the Washingotn State Patrol, city of Bellingham fire department specialized emergency response program personnel, and Washington state department of ecology spill response team responded.

Banham said the manhole is now plugged and at safe levels.

�We capped off a line � it was obviously leaking � coming into the manhole, and the gas has been completely eliminated from the system,� Banham said.

This sort of incident is not uncommon, Rutherford said.

�Every now and then we find deposits of petroluem underground,� he said, adding gas stations during the 1930s and 40s dumped gas into the ground. �They didn�t have the environmental awareness that we have today. There have been a couple incidents in the last few years, and this will probably happen again somewhere.�

The mexican restaurant Paso del Norte and nearby Duty Free stores were evacuated during last week�s incident. According to Miguel Ramos of Paso Del Norte, the restaurant took a financial hit that day.

�We were in the middle of cooking our food � the chicken, beans, rice � and we were evacuated,� Ramos said. �We had to throw everything away, we couldn�t use any of it. It was my decision.�

Ramos said officials let them open back up around 6:15 p.m., but Paso del Norte just closed for the day. �It would have taken more time and money to open back up. So we didn�t.�

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