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Mystery gas baffles town of Louisa

Posted on Thursday, December 6, 2018 at 5:00 am

Fire and rescue personnel returned to Walgreens late Saturday afternoon to investigate a new report of a gas smell. They did not detect anything.

Investigators continued to puzzle this week over how smells and dangerous levels of gas turned up in the air in the town of Louisa, and possibly in the public water supply.

The town and the Louisa County Water Authority released a statement Tuesday pointing to natural gas and methane as possible culprits in the Nov. 29 water scare. Officials also suggested a build-up of sewer gas could have been at fault.

“Our primary focus is on identifying the cause and we believe we may be close to doing so,” Mayor Garland Nuckols said.

To try to narrow down the list of possible contaminants, officials on Friday ordered a mass spectrometry test, a method of separating out gases within a sample. The results of that test were not back yet from a state lab as of Tuesday, Nuckols said. A third-party engineering firm may also be hired to assist with the investigation.

The focus of the past week has been on the town’s water, but Jim Moore, Virginia Health Department Office of Drinking Water field director, cautioned that no gas was ever identified in water.

“We never got any confirmation it was in the water, although the circumstantial evidence suggests it was,” he said. “I don’t think they had the capacity to detect it in the water.”

Firefighters found gas in the air, using a device called a four-gas detector that is designed to pick up hints of butane, propane, natural gas or methane. They presumed it was coming from nearby water. They initially detected gas in a drain inside Walgreens, on East Main Street, and later near a fire hydrant. Gas readings also rose after they turned on the water in a sink.

“We checked outside and in adjacent buildings and got the same readings,” Louisa County Fire and Emergency Services Chief Keith Greene said. Some of the higher readings were at Virginia Community Bank and the Fresenius Dialysis Center, Nuckols said.

Greene said he thought early on that sewer gas might be the source, and that a faulty mechanism such as a backflow valve could be causing the gas to come up out of a drain. If a drain was not used regularly, it could have dried out, which could result in a build-up of sewer gas.

“A lot of people have a floor drain in their basement and they forget it’s there,” Bob Bangel, a Louisa-based plumber, said. “If you’re not down there for six months, you’ll start to smell it. I’ve had sewer gas come into buildings many times, and it stinks. But I’ve never seen it lead to anyone evacuating.”

Since the gas was detected near the ceiling at Walgreens, firefighters suspected it could be natural gas or methane. Those gases are light and tend to float, while other common gases that might have leaked, such as propane, are heavy and will be detected near a floor.

Since a natural gas pipeline runs in front of Walgreens, Columbia Gas of Virginia was contacted. Monique Finneran, a company spokeswoman, said inspectors checked their equipment and ran a few tests, finding nothing amiss.

“We performed our standard safety checks. Every safety check passed,” she said. “At this point, there is no sign our systems are involved.”

Workers with the contractor digging a trench on East Main Street for a fiber-optic line to bring higher-speed internet to Louisa County Public Schools were also contacted, Moore said. There is no evidence the workers struck a water or gas line.

Two water samples sent to a state lab by the health department were analyzed for a variety of volatile organic chemicals but turned out to contain no contaminants. The first sample was taken late Thursday, Moore said. When the second sample returned clean on Friday, officials lifted the Do Not Use order they had imposed on town of Louisa water customers 22 hours earlier.

When that order was first issued, residents and business owners quickly became aware of how precious water is, and how difficult life is without it.

Restaurant owners in town felt the impact immediately. Vinny Liguria, who owns Roma’s in the Glen Mayre Shopping Center, brought in bottled water and cans of soda to drink, trying to stave off closing. He had plenty of dough already made, and didn’t need water to make pizzas. But he decided to close anyway, even before the evacuation order.

“It got critical as it went on,” he said. “People were confused — they’re not used to the town being closed. We had enough dough for two days. But I didn’t want the health department on my back.”

Initially the Do Not Use order applied to all water authority customers, including in the town of Mineral and the county. The LCWA found traces of gas in their lines on Jefferson Highway (Rt. 33). But officials were soon able to isolate the crisis to addresses billed by the town of Louisa.

Although Thomas Jefferson Elementary School is outside the town on Rt. 33, it is located adjacent to a public water line, so public schools officials were asked to shut off the building’s water supply. That led LCPS officials to cancel school for all students on Friday.

Beyond the health department, local officials also informed the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and the federal Environmental Protection Agency of the situation. In the Emergency Operations Center in the Louisa County Office Building, staff handled numerous phone calls from rattled residents and others. Nuckols said one call came in from Australia, from someone whose mother happens to live in Louisa.

At the height of the crisis, Louisa County Board of Supervisors Chairman Troy Wade ordered a mandatory evacuation of everyone within one-half mile of the Glen Marye Shopping Center, which includes Walgreens, where gas was first detected that day.

That order was given at about 9:30 p.m. on Thursday, when fire and emergency services staff observed a sudden spike in gas levels from .12 to .32 parts per million, a four percent increase.

A shelter was quickly organized at Moss-Nuckols Elementary School, and school buses lined up on West Main Street to take people there if needed. Only two residents took advantage of the buses, according to Deborah Coles, LCPS transportation director.

Town workers and police went door-to-door to advise people to leave the area. About 400 homes were affected by the evacuation order, although it was also sent out via phone and internet to anyone in town who had subscribed to the county’s citizen alert system.

This is a partial article. Read the full story in The Central Virginian’s Dec. 6, 2018 issue.

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