DALLAS TWP. — The strong smell of natural gas summoned emergency personnel Thursday morning to Dallas High School, where some students had temporarily taken refuge in the auditorium, some of them feeling sick from the smell.
It turned out to be only the odorant added to gas — and not gas itself — from a controlled release that was part of nearby pipeline construction managed by Williams, a company that oversees pipeline operations around the country. District and emergency responders said the gas company had not properly notified district and township officials, a contention the company disputed.
The school day was interrupted when police and firefighters arrived at the school, but no one was endangered or injured.
The confusion started shortly after 10 a.m. when Superintendent Frank Galicki said he received a call about a strong odor of gas in the high school coming in through the ventilators. The ventilators were shut down, the students moved to the auditorium and the fire department and township emergency management were called, he said.
Williams vented natural gas into the air, which is a standard part of pipeline construction. Workers are installing a pipeline between Lower Demunds and Hildebrandt roads.
State Department of Environmental Protection inspectors found low, but not dangerous, levels of methane in the air around the school, said DEP spokeswoman Colleen Connolly.
Connolly also said that while DEP would like to receive notice of planned venting, the pipeline company is not required by law to notify the state agency.
Galicki and Township Emergency Management Agency Coordinator Alan Pugh said the company had apparently made some notifications but did not follow protocol. Galicki said someone had called him Wednesday afternoon around 4 p.m. and he had immediately directed them to call township supervisors and EMA, who would in turn give the district directions on how to handle any issue.
“Those communications did not occur,” Galicki said. “Someone dropped the ball.”
In an email, Williams spokesman Chris Stockton said company officials gave written word of the planned venting on Sept. 20 and by phone Wednesday to school district, township and emergency management administrators.
Stockton said they notified local officials again Thursday before the 10:30 a.m. release from pipeline portions between Lower Demunds and Hildebrandt roads.
Stockton said gas was released, but methane is lighter than air so it floated into the atmosphere. Mercaptan — the odorant added because methane has no scent — is heavier than air, and if the wind is right, it could drift to populated areas, Stockton said.
Galicki said the release should not have occurred during school hours even if it was only the odorant. “We are going to demand that there be no type of activity during school hours,” Galicki said.
“They can release the gas and they can control everything but the wind,” Pugh said. “Obviously, they did smell gas here, it’s a concern, and we had a few other businesses in the area, including a supermarket that temporarily evacuated.” Pugh said such problems can be avoided “through timely notification and following protocol.”
Township Supervisor Elizabeth Martin said Williams’ employees contacted her office but did not provide information about the planned venting.
“They called here and they came here, but they never gave their information … Never left a message, never asked to get a hold of me, left a name or number, nothing,” Martin said.
Martin said she knew of no written notice to the township or the school district.
Shortened school day
Classes resumed, but many parents picked up their children, Galicki said, a fact made obvious when his press briefing was interrupted by an announcement over the public address system calling a long list of students to the main entrance for early dismissal.
Jane Tolomello went promptly to the school to get her nieces. She was frustrated at the apparent communications breakdown.
“They don’t know what it is and they’re not prepared,” Tolomello said. “They have never put an evacuation plan in place.”
Tolomello received a notice from Williams on Sept. 20 and took it to the township office, where officials there had no word of the procedure.
“I gave it to them so they could make the rest of the announcements,” Tolomello said. The notice was posted on the township’s website.
Martin echoed Tolomello’s sentiment.
“There should have been a drill for this. We should have been more prepared,” Martin said.
Stockton said the company regrets concerns and inconveniences caused by the venting and plans to follow up with school officials on improving communication.
“We make a continuous and deliberate effort to be a good and inconspicuous neighbor and we regret when we cause any disturbance to the community,” Stockton said