washingtonpost.com  > Metro > Maryland > Pr. George's

Many on Edge After Blast In Pr. George's

Reports of Gas Leaks Jump

By Nancy Trejos
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 1, 2005; Page B01

The gas explosion that destroyed a District Heights house this week was a good 13 miles away. But it made the residents of Brooke Jane Drive and Shirl Court in Clinton mighty nervous.

After all, they say they have lived with the stench of gas for three years. They have turned off their heat at night, curtailed backyard barbecues and called Washington Gas again and again.


Faulty mechanical couplings are not to blame in a gas explosion that destroyed a District Heights house Monday, Washington Gas says. (Prince George's County Fire/emergency Medical Services Departme)

_____Related Stories_____
Family Feared Gas Before Explosion (The Washington Post, Mar 30, 2005)
Safety Tips

• If you smell gas, call Washington Gas at 703-750-1400 or 800-752-7520.

• If the odor is faint, open doors and windows.

• If the odor is strong or you hear blowing or hissing noises, leave immediately. Do not use any device that could create a spark, such as a light switch.

• Never enclose gas furnaces, hot water heaters or dryers in a small room without good air circulation.

• Keep areas around gas appliances free of flammable substances.

• If a burner on a gas stove doesn't light, turn it off and wait about five minutes to let accumulated gas clear before trying again.

SOURCE: Washington Gas

"They're here all the time, but I still smell the gas," said Clarence Huger, a retired D.C. police officer who lives on Brooke Jane Drive.

Since Monday's gas explosion, a Washington Gas official said yesterday, neighborhoods in Prince George's County are experiencing an unusually high number of gas leaks in communities such as Clinton, Surrattsville and Lanham.

The reasons are not completely clear, but the company suspects that mechanical couplings that hold together pipes are leaking, said Tim Sargeant, a Washington Gas spokesman. The pipes themselves are in good condition and remain connected, he said.

The couplings, he stressed, had nothing to do with Monday's explosion and have not been linked to any other such incidents.

That's little comfort to the hundreds of residents who have been complaining of gas leaks for years. Since the explosion, the county fire department has received several complaints, said Capt. Chauncey Bowers, a department spokesman. On Wednesday, for example, the department responded to calls about seven possible leaks, including one in Lanham.

The County Council is holding an emergency meeting with Washington Gas and county fire officials at 6 p.m. tonight in the County Administration Building, 14741 Governor Oden Bowie Dr. in Upper Marlboro.

"What we are beginning to find out is that this issue is not limited to one area, and it appears to be very widespread and we want to get a handle on this," Council Chairman Samuel H. Dean (D-Mitchellville) said.

Mechanical couplings were used mostly in the 1950s and 1960s. The utility stopped installing couplings when it switched to plastic pipes that do not require the devices. But the couplings remain in some neighborhoods across the region and often function well, Sargeant said. "We don't know what is causing them to not seal as tightly," he said. "In some areas, the couplings are fine."

Prince George's seems to have the highest number of couplings, for reasons that have not been determined, though the age of housing developments could be a factor, Sargeant said. He said the problem has not arisen in neighboring jurisdictions, such as Montgomery County.

The company responded to 187 calls in Clinton and 72 calls in Bowie for a variety of problems from Feb. 15 to Tuesday. In Bethesda, the gas company went out on 35 calls in the same six-week period.

Some residents said they believe that if they lived in neighborhoods with newer, more expensive houses and more politically active residents, antiquated service lines would have been replaced long ago.

"It's an older community. It's not affluent," said Yvonne Mack, who lives in a neighborhood in Clinton off Brandywine Road. "We have a lot of older people who have retired. . . . They've had their homes and lived there a long time, and they're just not active because some of them are not well."

Sargeant said Washington Gas officials have not ignored the needs of the older communities. The utility has hired more technicians since becoming aware of the problem with the couplings through the higher number of calls from Prince George's residents in the past year, he said.

No couplings were on the service line at the house that exploded in District Heights, Sergeant said. The company recently had installed a new line at the house. Since the blast, technicians have tested the line and found no leaks, he said.

Prince George's fire investigators believe an outside leak could have migrated into the home and come into contact with an ignition source, Bowers said.

Meanwhile, residents across the county say they are terrified of another explosion. At Shirl Court and Brooke Jane Drive, patches of dark asphalt attest to the number of times technicians have excavated pipes.

Residents of this quiet neighborhood of single-family homes with big lawns and big back yards have learned to cope with the fear.

On even the coldest winter nights, Deborah Lewis switches the gas off in her three-bedroom house and has her 16-year-old daughter sleep with extra blankets and an electric heater. It may not make a difference, but having less gas in the house makes Lewis feel better. "I'm trying to sell my house, but I cannot sell my house because when the people come, they smell the gas," she said. "I want to stay, but I'm scared."

Across the street, Cheryl Burnett has cut down on barbecuing during the summer and occasionally prohibits her 1 1/2-year-old daughter from playing outside. During the Christmas season, she decorates her lawn with lights but unplugs them when the smell is strong. "It's interesting what you get used to," Burnett said.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company