Gas leak repaired after forcing evacuations, rerouting traffic at UMass

Last modified: Friday, June 20, 2014
AMHERST — A contractor whose excavator struck a natural gas line near the intersection of Massachusetts and Commonwealth avenues prompted an advisory by University of Massachusetts officials for people to evacuate and avoid the Southwest area of the campus Tuesday afternoon.

The gas leak occurred just before 2 p.m. and Berkshire Gas workers completed repairs at 6:30 p.m., according to Chris Farrell, a spokesman for Berkshire Gas. Officials from Berkshire Gas, the Amherst Fire Department, UMass police and a mobile command unit from the UMass Environmental Health and Safety Department were all at the scene of the leak.

The university’s Office of Emergency Management reported the campus was “open and fully operational” at 6:45 p.m. Tuesday. However, some campus areas and surrounding areas of town could be without gas for up to 36 hours, according to the statement.

Farrell said gas was shut off due to the leak and repairs, causing service interruptions for 16 customers. “Efforts are now underway to restore service to those customers,” he said in a statement at about 8 p.m.

UMass spokesman Daniel Fitzgibbons said the leak appears to have started when equipment used by a contractor handling upgrades to electrical feeders at Southwest buildings, a project that began in May, hit one of the gas lines.

Assistant Fire Chief Donald McKay said an excavator hit the 4-inch line, creating what he classified as a “large gas leak.” He said gas was leaking from the line profusely.

But McKay said the smell of gas in the air more than 500 feet away and the wind indicated that the gas was dissipating and not concentrating in one area, which poses the threat of an explosion. “The danger is where it might collect,” McKay said. Because natural gas is lighter than air, it is likely to dissipate quickly, he said.

Firefighters initially wet down the leak and the contractor and Berkshire Gas attempted to move the excavator, but initial efforts did not work.

“I’m sure there will be an evaluation of how and why this happened,” Edward Blaguszewski, another UMass spokesman, said Tuesday night. “Any time there is an incident like this, there will be a discussion with the contractor and the gas company to see if any lessons can be learned.”

During the leak, people who parked in Lot 42 between Melville dormitory and the Boyden Gymnasium were told they would not be able to get to their vehicles until the leak was fixed.

Blaguszewski said fewer than a dozen buildings in the Southwest Area, including Melville Hall dormitory and Whitmore Administrative Building, were evacuated as a precaution. Electricity was also shut off for several buildings in the area “as a precautionary measure,” Blaguszewski said. He said all campus buildings will be open Wednesday as usual.

Massachusetts Avenue was closed during the leak, so vehicles heading west on Massachusetts Avenue were diverted to Lincoln Avenue, while vehicles southbound on Commonwealth Avenue had to go back to North Pleasant Street to leave the campus.

Staff Writer Rebecca Everett contributed to this story.