Detecting Natural Gas Leaks, Preventing Disasters

Memphis Area Has About 1600 Serious Gas Leaks A Year

The explosion March 12, 2014, in New York City killed eight people, injured dozens, and destroyed two apartment buildings. The blast occurred moments after a resident in one of the apartment buildings called the gas company to complain about the smell of natural gas. After the explosion, the National Transportation Safety Board investigators found a high concentration of gas in the soil around the building locations when normally no gas would be expected to be found in the soil. These factors lead experts to believe the explosion very well could have been the result of a natural gas leak.

In 2010, a gas line leak caused an explosion in a single family residential area of San Bruno, California, killing eight people there, seriously injuring dozens more, destroying 38 homes and damaging 70 others.

“Too often, the investigations into events like today’s reveal the cause to be old, outdated pipes, misplaced pipes, poor pipe locating technology and/or inaccurate system maps, or unsafe construction practices,” says Brigham McCown, the former head of the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, as quoted on

Just a couple of weeks ago, Memphis Light, Gas, and Water Division of the City of Memphis responded to questions from Memphis City Council member Kemp Conrad in connection with a contract with a private company to survey for natural gas leaks. Jerry Collins, President of MLGW and Craig Powers, Manager of the MLGW Gas Matrix Department, explained that about 7,800 gas leaks were reported to the utility last year. About 20 percent, or about 1,600, were considered “grade one,” calling for fixing the leak within 24 hours. The utility recognizes two other grades for gas leaks, categorized by the concentration of gas detected, which call for repair within 30 days or within a year of detection.

Both motorized vehicles and handheld devices are used to detect leaks. Those on vehicles primarily detect leaks from the mains that are under the streets while the handheld devices are used to check for leaks in the pipes under the customer’s property going from the main to the customer’s gas meters.

MLGW was asking for an extension of the current contract to cover from March 1 of this year to February 28, 2015, with Heath Consultants, Inc. In the amount of $1,615,140.40. The City Council voted to approve the contract at its February 18, 2014, meeting.

The reports about the New York City explosions do not indicate from where the resident was calling when he/she reported the smell of natural gas in the building. However, it should be noted that if a strong smell of gas is detected, it is highly recommended no electronic devices, including landline or cellular telephone be used, and, of course, no open flame or spark generating device be used in the area. It is best if one exists the area and calls from a nearby location where there is not the smell of gas. More safety suggestions are below from MLGW.

Just to be technically correct, natural gas itself does not have an odor, gas companies inject it with an additive to give it the distinctive smell specifically to alert people should there be a hazardous situation.

If you smell a strong odor of natural gas in or near your home or office, you should immediately call MLGW’s 24-hour Emergency Line, (901) 528-4465. If possible, call from another location, such as a neighbor’s home, and do not re-enter your home until an MLGW representative has advised you that you can do so safely. Also remember: do not turn lights or other electrical appliances on or off, or use matches.

It should also be noted that the law requires people to call before digging in the ground, even with a post hole digger, so that it can be determined if there are any utility facilities that might be affected by the digging. It’s a free call, dial 811.

Check MLGW’s web site for additional safety information:


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