Propane leak continues to vex Truckee

TRUCKEE -- As estimates of leaked propane jumped from 3,600 gallons to 22,000 gallons, Truckee residents and businesses surrounding the AmeriGas station on Donner Pass Road questioned their safety and how something like this could happen and go undetected for so long.

AmeriGas officials estimate the propane has been leaking into soil from a faulty pipe since March, but was just found Jan. 23 when an employee at Granite Chief smelled propane and called the fire department.

This weekend, officials found a pinhole in the AmeriGas pipe that had caused the leak. The pipe is being tested in a metallurgical lab, and officials will have a better understanding of the cause of the leak when results are final.

"It begs the question of why and how and is there regulation (for propane)," Truckee Mayor Ted Owens said Tuesday.

The incident has closed three businesses since it began two weeks ago, closed Sierra Mountain Middle School, and diverted traffic around the area.

While plans to pursue state regulations are in the works, officials are more worried about the immediate process of propane extraction.

Consultants from H2O Environmental will construct extraction machines to attempt to remove the propane vapors. But because of the unprecedented nature of the incident, there's no guarantee that will work.

Truckee Fire Chief Mike Terwilliger said if a propane tank ignites, like what happened in Chico, Calif., on Sunday, the fire department will have no trouble dealing with that sort of situation.

"That happens everywhere in the U.S. every day," Terwilliger said. "This is tough."

Until officials finish the cleanup -- which they warn will be no earlier than two weeks -- a portion of Donner Pass Road will be closed while machines pump the vapor out of the ground, dig trenches, and monitor propane levels at nearby businesses.

"Don't even expect Donner Pass (to be open) for a couple of weeks," said John Bradley, president of H2O Environmental, which was contracted by AmeriGas for the cleanup. "And in a few weeks, I could say another couple of weeks."

"We've still got a couple of life issues to close the loop on before we open the school and the stores," Terwilliger said.

Officials believe the chance of underground ignition is next to impossible.

"We're worried about a new flammable area that we haven't seen," Terwilliger said.

The fire department and H2O found an empty tank under Donner Pass Road last weekend, which was removed to prevent it from being filled with propane vapors.

Terwilliger said propane becomes dangerous when vapor fills a room and reaches explosive levels or if the amount of propane in an enclosed area begins to displace oxygen.

Residents and business owners still have concerns.

"My dilemma is my responsibility to my employees. Do I relocate my employees while this is going on?" asked Michele Skupic, county manager of Fidelity National Title.

She said her employees have complained of nausea and dizziness, and she is afraid ethyl mercaptan, the odorized additive in propane, could be the cause.


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