Natural gas leak causes mass campus evacuation

By Lana Groves, Asst. News Editor

A natural gas leak forced police to evacuate all buildings on lower campus for several hours and shut down power on March 24 for fear of explosions caused by cars or power sources.

The leak, which came from a pipe running underground along 500 South, occurred when workers from Down Under Construction, a company in North Salt Lake, were installing fiber optics out of a traffic operations center for the Utah Department of Transportation. They used 3- to 4-inch drills to bore down and accidentally hit a Questar Gas pipeline.

UDOT spokesman Scott Thompson said the pipe might have been hit because the ground was not marked by Blue Stakes, a company that shows where pipelines are underground before a construction project starts.

“Typically when we do a road project, we mark where we’re digging, but sometimes we end up hitting a pipeline,” Thompson said. “We do everything we can to avoid that, though.”

Although the natural gas wasn’t toxic to people breathing it, the U worked with the Salt Lake City Fire Department to close off the west- and eastbound lanes on 500 South between 1300 East and Mario Capecchi Drive while on-foot campus police officers instructed people to avoid South Campus Drive.

Questar Gas workers spent about five hours drilling in the middle of the westbound lane of 500 South to close off both sides of the damaged pipe. They inserted a new section of the pipe the night of March 24 but needed more time to backfill trenches and holes resulting from the incident, said spokesman Darren Shepherd.

“The natural gas lifted the ground,” Shepherd said. “There’s a slight bump in the road right now. And it started coming out where the grass is and dissipating into the air.”

Questar workers lifted manholes off the ground to let the gas dissipate into the air quickly, but at the time, officials were concerned the gas could create an explosion if people tried to start nearby parked cars.

“Our concern is that we were getting high concentrations of gas tunneling underground and were unsure where it would end up,” said the fire department’s Deputy Chief Devin Villa. About 50 firefighters surrounded the scene within an hour to section off areas and help workers control the leakage.

The U activated the campus alert system, which sent notices to students, faculty and staff via text messages, e-mails, and phone calls that a leak had occurred.

“I was in a cultural competency and mutual respect class when we got text messages,” said Alisha Shelton, a graduate pharmacy student. “We actually let our professor know.”

Shelton said she could smell the gas in the wind while walking down to the Rice-Eccles Stadium TRAX station and described it as having a “sulfury” smell.

Students such as Shelton were unable to ride trains from any of the Utah Transit Authority TRAX stations on campus except the Stadium station.

UTA spokeswoman Carrie Bohnsack-Ware said UTA organized bus bridges to transport people from any of the campus stops to an alternate destination.

Rowland Hall-St. Marks School, First Baptist Childcare and parts of the Veteran Affairs Hospital were also evacuated.

John Gallegos, a laundry worker for the hospital, said some employees were told to go home and the hospital moved some patients out of the building.

Authorities also shut down power within a half-mile radius, which included residents down to 1000 East and 800 South. Residents of that area were also evacuated.

Sam Earl, a business information systems senior, said he was studying on the Internet at his house around 850 South and 1100 East when the power went out.

“I went up to the (Marriott) Library, but it was closed,” Earl said.

Lower campus was mostly evacuated and buildings were locked by 4 p.m. Students received an e-mail notice at 5:44 p.m. saying that Questar Gas had capped the leak and all campus housing, including the University Guest House, and the U Hospitals and Clinics were open again.

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tyler cobb/The Daily Utah Chronicle

Questar Gas employees work to close off either side of a damaged underground gas pipeline. The pipe broke when workers accidentally drilled into the line. The accident caused the cancellation of classes and the evacuation of lower campus on March 24th.

Thien Sok/The Daily Utah Chronicle

Drivers had to wait for hours in their cars at the corner of 100 South and North Campus Drive because the street experienced heavy traffic after the evacuation of lower campus and closing of 500 South because of the gas leak March 24.