Fortis BC has a message to anyone sticking a shovel or backhoe into the ground, and that’s to always call first. This year the utility has already logged six calls regarding ruptured natural gas pipes, all of them the result of machine digging tools.
“All the hits in Whistler so far this year are from machine diggers, which is why we reach out to the digging community on a regular basis,” said Mike Allison, spokesperson for Fortis BC. “If you haven’t verified it first then you shouldn’t dig.”
Allison said that Fortis BC logged five calls in 2012 and four in 2011. Call numbers were significantly higher in the pre- and post-Olympic years during the construction boom, with 14 calls in 2009 and seven in 2010.
Allison encourages anyone digging to call or visit BC One Call, a service set up by the province that keeps track of where all underground infrastructure is located, including gas lines, water/sewer lines, electrical lines, communications conduits and more.
And if you’re digging somewhere that has known infrastructure, Allison said the proper way to locate pipes is to dig by hand because no maps are perfect.
Hitting a pipe is a serious risk to public safety, and fire crews generally spray water in the area of a leak to prevent the gas from igniting until Fortis BC or a contractor working for the utility can turn off the pipe. The cost of those repairs is also sent to the business or person responsible.
Whistler fire chief Rob Whitton said the level of risk depends on several factors.
“A lot depends on where (the pipe) is located, and if it’s away from a building or open windows,” he said. “It’s not like propane (which is more combustible). Natural gas is lighter than air and tends to dissipate quickly, and also there’s higher pressure in the line so the leak tends to blow straight up in the air. If you’re not right next to a building or an open window then the hazard can be minimized.”
One of the risks with natural gas leaks is static electricity. The force of gas exiting a plastic pipe can create enough static electricity to ignite the gas, which is one of the reasons firefighters spray a burst pipe with hoses. People entering the area of the leak can also introduce static.
“It’s a very rare occurrence,” said Whitton, adding that the best strategy is for crews to keep their distance.
While most of their calls involve digging tools, Whistler firefighters answered one call last week where a stump removed by a homeowner rolled downhill and knocked the gas meter of the wall.
In other gas news, Fortis BC recently announced that the majority of their customers, including Whistler, will be paying lower rates as of Oct. 1 due to a decline in natural gas prices.
In Whistler that means rates will drop by $0.641 per gigajoule, or a net savings of $58 per year for customers using an average of 90 GJ.
However, Fortis BC is still asking customers to mind their energy use.
“Despite the fact that natural gas prices are still near their lowest levels in a decade, as we approach the winter heating season, we encourage our customers to continue using energy wisely, helping keep costs down,” said Cynthia Des Brisay, vice president of energy supply and resource development for Fortis BC.