Propane problems: Leak estimate up to 22,000 gallons. | SierraSun.com

Propane problems: Leak estimate up to 22,000 gallons.

Christina Nelson

As estimates of leaked propane jumped from 3,600 gallons to 22,000 gallons, Truckee residents and businesses surrounding the AmeriGas station on Donner Pass Road questioned not only their own safety, but how something like this could happen and go undetected for so long.

According to recent AmeriGas estimates, the propane has been leaking into the soil from a faulty pipe since last March, but was just located on Jan. 23 when an employee at Granite Chief smelled propane and called the fire department.

This weekend, officials found a pinhole in the AmeriGas pipe that caused the leak. The pipe is in a metallurgical lab being tested, and officials will have a better handle on the cause of the leak when those results are final.

“It begs the question of why and how and is there regulation (for propane),” Truckee Mayor Ted Owens said at a meeting on Tuesday.

The incident – formally called “The Donner Incident” – has closed three businesses since it began two weeks ago, closed Sierra Mountain Middle School and diverted traffic around the “hot zone”.

While future plans to pursue state regulations are in the works, officials are more worried about the immediate process of propane extraction.

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Consultants from H2O Environmental will be constructing extraction machines to attempt to remove the propane vapors. But because of the unprecedented nature of the incident, there’s no guarantee that the extraction equipment will work.

Truckee Fire Chief Mike Terwilliger said if a propane tank ignites, like the incident in Chico Sunday, the fire department has no trouble dealing with that sort of situation.

“That happens everywhere in the U.S. every day,” Terwilliger said. “This is tough.”

Until official finish the cleanup – which they warn will be no earlier than two weeks from now – a portion of Donner Pass Road will be closed while machines pump the vapor out of the ground, dig trenches and monitor propane levels at nearby businesses.

“Don’t even expect Donner Pass (to be open) for a couple of weeks,” said John Bradley, president of H2O Environmental, the company that was contracted by AmeriGas for the cleanup. “And in a few weeks, I could say another couple of weeks.”

“We’ve still got a couple of life issues to close the loop on before we open the school and the stores,” Terwilliger said.

Officials believe the chance of an underground ignition is next to impossible.

“We’re worried about a new flammable area that we haven’t seen,” Terwilliger said.

The fire department and H2O found an empty tank under Donner Pass Road last weekend, which was immediately removed to prevent it from being filled with propane vapors.

Terwilliger reiterated the fact that propane becomes dangerous when the vapor fills a room and reaches explosive levels and if the amount of propane in an enclosed area begins to displace Oxygen.

Residents and business owners still had concerns.

“My dilemma is my responsibility to my employees. Do I relocate my employees while this is going on?” asked Michele Skupic, county manager of Fidelity National Title.

She said that her employees have complained of nausea and dizziness, and Skupic was afraid ethyl mercaptan, the odorized additive in propane, could be the cause.

AmeriGas representative Gordon Eldridge said that only three to four gallons of ethyl mercaptan could have been released with the gas leak, and that at such low levels, there’s no danger.

“Any excessive level of anything can be harmful,” he said.

The cost of the leak

Alex Terrazas, public information officer for the town of Truckee and local districts, said the initial cleanup cost estimates were around $1 million, but the new estimate of leaked propane will probably increase that number.

AmeriGas has been handing out insurance claim numbers and a representative from their underwriter, Kemper, appeared at a public meeting on Tuesday.

Businesses that are still open for business have been affected by the leak, and many have “Open for Business” signs up.

As Dairy Queen owner Mark Stearns said, it’s his employees who are hit the hardest by his restaurant’s two-week closure.

“I’m giving them all cash advances to cover all their bills. I don’t know how long that can last,” Stearns said.

He estimates that he’s losing $3,000 every day that he’s closed. As things are going now, Dairy Queen could be closed for a month or longer, but Stearns does not want to open his store until everything is “100 percent safe.”

When Stearns drove by his store Tuesday morning, a fence had been put up around it. Authorities were trying to keep pedestrians away from the store, which is where much of the propane flume has accumulated.

“I feel like the person who was walking on the sidewalk and got hit by a car,” Stearns said.

“I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”