On Wednesday evening, March 29, a Spectra Energy gas pipeline, part of the Algonquin Pipeline, burst on National Grid property at 30 Allens Avenue. The pipeline, which witnesses said sounded like a jet airplane, spewed high pressure natural gas for over four hours. The first reports of the leak came in around 8:10pm, and the situation wasn’t officially resolved until 3:30am, though, as we shall see, even then the situation was far from being actually resolved.
“It is a hazmat site,” said chief compliance inspector for natural gas and propane Don Ledversis of the RIPUC (Rhode Island Public Utilities Commission), “It has been deemed a hazmat site, so there is clean-up that has to take place there. Whenever you have a release of high pressure gas under those circumstances, I’m sure there’s going to be hazmat because pipeline gas is not 100 percent clean. You have oil that accumulates at compressor stations and they get into the system. Strainers along the way [attempt to] capture all those liquids out of the gas. You want to have a nice, clean gas product that’s delivered.”
The high pressure gas leak was not simply composed of methane gas, it also contained black powder, a solid contaminant in finished product pipelines. According to Wikipedia the material may be wet and have a tar-like appearance, or dry and be a very fine powder, sometimes like smoke. The pipeline also potentially contained PCBs (Polychlorinated biphenyl). PCBs have been shown to cause cancer in animals and are believed to be carcinogenic for humans. The deleterious effects of PCBs depend on the exact kind of PCB and the nature of exposure. PCB production was banned in the United States in 1979, but is still found in pipelines. [Edit: RIDEM confirmed that PCBs were released during the leak.]
If you look at the picture of the Hurricane Barrier (which is maintained by the Army Corps of Engineers and the City of Providence), you will see that the place where the pipeline discharge hit with a force that sounded like a jet engine for four straight hours is discolored. These pictures were taken on April 11, after two weeks had passed and about five inches of rain had fallen.
On April 12 the Providence Department of Public Works and the Army Corps of Engineers conducted an inspection of the levee and street gates in response to the gas leak. “They did not note any anomalies from brownish residue,” wrote Mayor Jorge Elorza’s press secretary Victor Morente in response to my inquiry, “In regards to groundwater, the City does not have an equivalent body of authority like RIDEM to oversee National Grid’s clean up. PEMA [Providence Emergency Management Agency] will stay abreast on the situation.”
RIDEM (Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management) would not respond to frequent requests for comment. The answers to several of my questions, submitted in writing, were referred to Assistant Director Terry Maguire for approval, and Maguire is out of town until Wednesday, April 19. “I don’t have an exact time to offer you [on when these questions will be answered],” said Gail Mastrati, Assistant to RIDEM Director Janet Coit.
[Edit: RIDEM responded at 8:37am, after the this piece was published and after two tweets noting their lack of response:
“At the request of the Providence Fire Department, the RI Department of Environmental Management (DEM) provided assistance following a large natural gas leak that occurred on March 29 on Allens Avenue. The Department worked with Providence Fire to ensure the safety of the public and first responders. DEM’s Office of Emergency Response deployed air monitoring instruments to determine whether levels of natural gas were elevated and could possibly ignite.
“Following the leak, DEM was alerted by National Grid that the damaged line may have contained PCB oil and that National Grid would conduct sampling in the area. On March 31, we received notice that PCB was confirmed on their property. We are overseeing National Grid’s cleanup of the site to ensure it complies with federal and state requirements for PCB remediation.”]
The force of the leak was strong enough to excavate a trench deep enough to reach groundwater. The pipeline contaminants mentioned above were potentially introduced into the groundwater. Though the leak started on a Wednesday evening and was more or less abated by 3:30am Thursday morning, remediation did not begin on the site until the following Monday afternoon, four days later. In the interim just under an inch of rain fell on Friday and just over an inch of rain fell on Saturday. This rain potentially carried more black powder and PCBs into the groundwater.
Why a four day delay before remediation?
“It’s not [a situation where] you want to run in there,” said Ledversis, offering a possibility for the delay in acting on remediation. “You have to send stuff out for lab testing, there has to be an assessment made, you have to come up with a protocol, you know, who can go in there, what kind of equipment do you need, do you need respirators? I wouldn’t want to charge in there without full knowledge of what’s going on either.”
“But meanwhile,” I countered, “the strip club next door was open and traffic was going back and forth on Allens Avenue as if nothing had happened. If the situation was so potentially toxic, why was it all business as usual around the site?”
“Did you ask National Grid that question?” asked Ledversis.
There was a second gas leak, unreported in the media, that occurred on Monday, April 3, around the time that remediation of the site was first starting. The exact size and duration of this leak, much like the first, is unknown, though the RIPUC has data requests in to National Grid for this information.
“As part of the clean-up work that was going on over there, [National Grid] found a fitting there that had a leak on it,” said Ledversis, “Which was repaired. [Because] it was considered a grade 2 or a grade 3 leak, believe it or not, because it’s out in the middle of nowhere, it does not have to be repaired. Federal law states that that hazardous leaks, leaks that are deemed hazardous, have to be repaired immediately. As soon as they found [the second leak] they called me and told me they were going to fix it and that was taken care of.”
Workers in yellow hazmat suits (and maybe wearing respirators) worked the site from Monday afternoon to Friday. They moved potentially contaminated soil to a space alongside Allens Avenue. The soil was covered with plastic tarps and surrounded with a chain link fence. Hay bales were added to prevent toxic runoff. In some places the the tarps covering the two sizable mounds of dirt were stabbed through with wooden stakes, presumably to keep the tarps in place. During the next four days the area received over 3 inches of rain.
On Saturday, April 8, there were no signs of remediation being done. On that day a “Toxic Tour” organized by Monica Huertas, the campaign coordinator for the No LNG in PVD Coalition in collaboration with the Environmental Justice League, was touring the area. Held periodically, these tours take observers on a trip along Allens Avenue, showcasing environmental issues posed by the various industries located in the Port of Providence. When asked, National Grid did not offer a reason for the lack of remediation work on Saturday.
The accident that shut down two highways, one hospital and a strip club that was widely touted as a disaster averted may in fact be a disaster delayed. The amount of contamination the area around the leak may have suffered is unknown. The amount of potentially carcinogenic PCBs that have been forcefully injected into the groundwater and surrounding area is unknown. The reaction of RIDEM, the state body with the authority to oversee the remediation of the area and to determine the environmental effects of the leak, is unknown.
In response to a list of questions, National Grid’s spokesperson David Graves sent me the following statement:
“National Grid considers the safety of the public and our employees to be our primary concern. The company feels appropriate steps were taken to safeguard the safety of the public and our employees who responded to the leak and we are continuing the restoration of the impacted area. The restoration process was begun in a timely manner following an evaluation of the incident and is being undertaken according to proper procedures involving a leak of this nature. That includes the testing for, and the safe removal of any potentially hazardous materials that may have leaked from the pipeline in question. The restoration process is being monitored closely by the Rhode Island Division of Public Utilities and Carriers according to state regulations. The Division and National Grid are also conducting independent investigations into the incident.”