Pam Tucker says it's become an inevitability of growth for Columbia County - the gas leak.
"It is more common now because of the growth and the construction," the county's emergency services director said.
The growth of gas leaks, which can cause home evacuations, has occurred in Columbia County mostly in the past five years, it seems. Before that, Mrs. Tucker said, her county averaged only a few such incidents a year.
"These are not uncommon (now), especially in counties that are growing like Columbia County. And yeah, some of it is preventable," she said.
Overall, Mrs. Tucker said such underground gas line leaks are accidental and occur as the result of a construction crew's digging into a gas line.
Robert Chaplin, the east Georgia operations manager for Atlanta Gas Light Co., said Thursday that construction contractors hire a separate contractor to visit a site before work begins and mark where gas lines are. He said a construction crew digging too close to a line and too fast, using mechanized equipment instead of hand digging, is usually the cause of a line's being pierced.
"If you're not quite sure and you're very close (to a line), then that's where you have to dig a little bit slower and it's going to take a bit of time," he said. "And that's how most accidents or damages happen, someone in a rush, not as experienced."
In the past few weeks, Columbia County residents have witnessed what a simple gas leak can do. On Jan. 21, a gas leak as a result of construction on Furys Ferry Road caused a section of the major thoroughfare to be closed for more than an hour.
"Furys Ferry Road right now has been a big culprit because of all that major construction for such a long stretch of the highway," Mrs. Tucker said.
On Jan. 26, the residential street Kings Bridge Road in Martinez was closed down at Wheeler Road for more than an hour after a gas leak. In that case, a construction crew pierced the gas line.
Another gas leak occurred recently near the construction of a Rhinehart's Oyster Bar off North Belair Road.
Still, Mr. Chaplin said that for the entire Augusta area, his company actually saw a 12.5 percent decrease in the number of gas lines damaged from 2003 to 2004. He agreed that an increase of leaks in Columbia County most likely has to do with added construction there.
Mrs. Tucker said the danger of gas leaks in an area is minimal compared with other potential hazards, but evacuations for very nearby homes are sometimes needed as a precaution.
Mrs. Tucker also said the number of gas leaks now is nothing like those that occurred in 2000 when cable provider Knology was adding its service to the county and digging in many different neighborhoods. That year, she said, the county had 12 gas leaks during October and November alone.
Mrs. Tucker said crews have gotten better at responding to gas leaks and sealing them quickly. She said gas companies train first responders to know when neighborhoods should be evacuated.
Despite preparations, though, she said a certain number of gas leaks are an inevitability.
"We'd like to see them not happen, but it's a part of the growth," she said.
"Until a lot of this construction finally starts to taper off, which is not going to be for many years, we're going to have to deal with this," she said.
Reach Preston Sparks at 868-1222, ext. 115, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Nearby residents are urged to leave the area immediately and call 911 to alert officials, who will in turn notify the gas company. The quicker a gas leak is reported, officials say, there will be less danger to an area and a quicker response to the situation. An emergency official should arrive within three minutes.
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