Disaster was averted on June 3, 2021, in the Oakwood Historic Neighborhood of East Lansing after a gas main was ruptured, sending a visible plume of gas into the air. As far as four blocks away, someone detected the smell clearly enough to call it in. That’s how big of a leak it was.
Quick and appropriate action by the 2-D Aerial Cable Construction workers who accidentally ruptured the line, Ingham County 911 emergency dispatchers, and the East Lansing Fire Department kept anyone from being hurt or killed.
But in theory, at least, that gas line never should have been ruptured. The accident happened because USIC, a private contractor working through the notification system known as MISS DIG – designated as “Michigan’s free and easy utility notification system” – failed to mark the line.
And this was not an isolated incident, according to Alena Hutchinson, Chief Financial Officer for 2-D Aerial Cable.
“My guys always try their hardest to keep people safe, and we try to make sure we do not hit anything. We are constantly calling MISS DIG,” Hutchinson told ELi. “We are doing our best to keep our guys safe and everybody around us safe.”
But Hutchinson told ELi what other digging contractors have also reported: The MISS DIG system isn’t working like it is supposed to.
Contractors who plan to dig do call MISS DIG, and then, in Hutchinson’s words, the companies hired to mark underground utilities “say they’ve marked [the line] or that there is no conflict [between the lines and the planned digging], but there really is.”
She summed it up this way: “For every job we’ve been on, we have to keep calling them. They say it is marked and there is no conflict, but there are lines there. It’s just not being done like it should be.”
A warm summer evening turned into a scene of panic in a residential neighborhood.
Workers for 2-D Aerial Cable were working in the area of Forest and Fern Streets to lay cable for Zayo internet when they accidentally bored into the gas main on the evening of June 3. Immediately, the workers began running house to house, telling people not to turn anything on or off and to evacuate – to get out of the area.
Amanda Tickner lives one house away from where the line was hit. She said she could immediately tell something very bad had happened – and not just because the 2-D Aerial Cable workers stopped her from starting her car, knowing that a spark from the ignition could cause an explosion.
“The plume was visible,” Tickner told ELi. “The air was wavy with gas. You could see the gas. You could see that [the quantity] of gas. And it was big and not little.”
While natural gas has no color, light travels through it at a different speed than it does through ordinary air. This is why a dense field of natural gas can be visible from down the block as “wavy air.”
“You could hear the hissing from a long way away,” added Tickner.
That was the sound of the gas escaping from the pipe under pressure.
“I fled,”’ she said.
On the call to 911 at 5:22 p.m., obtained through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the contractor can be heard urging the dispatcher to understand the severity of the situation. He describes the gas as “hissing and blowing,” and says they are actively evacuating residents. He can be heard on the recording talking to the dispatcher while simultaneously telling residents to evacuate.
The 911 dispatcher called the East Lansing Fire Department, which had personnel and equipment on the scene twelve minutes after they recorded receiving the alarm. (ELFD’s station is one mile from the scene.)
ELFD secured the area and did not call East Lansing Police for assistance. The East Lansing Police Department’s only involvement seems to have been about an hour and fifteen minutes after the first 911 call, when the Deputy Police Chief sent out a Nixle alert telling people to avoid the area. (He misstated the location by one block, and according to the City, the mistake was based on information conveyed to ELPD by Department of Public Works staff.)
Emergency personnel did contact Consumers Energy, which owns and operates the line. That happened about twenty minutes after the first 911 call.
According to ELFD’s narrative record of the incident – also obtained via FOIA – the line that was ruptured was “very close to the storm drain right at this intersection.”
In fact, gas appeared to collect in the combined sewer system line. That’s particularly dangerous in the Oakwood Neighborhood, where the houses were mostly built in the 1920s and where many still have open floor storm drains in the basements that connect to the combined sewers.
Materials including gas in the combined sewers can sometimes come into the houses, as has happened in the past. A few years ago, an epoxy used in the sewer system off-gassed and sent strange chemical smells into Oakwood houses, resulting in an emergency investigation by the Fire Department.
According to ELFD’s report of the June 3 gas line rupture, “Consumers continued monitoring and checking houses throughout the incident.” No evidence was found of gas in basements.
But ELFD’s records note that when firefighters arrived to the scene, “We could audibly hear the gas leak and significant smell of mercaptan.” (Mercaptan is the scent added to otherwise-odorless natural gas, in order to allow humans to smell gas leaks.)
Records released under FOIA show that one person even called 911 to report the smell of gas from All Saints Church, four blocks away.
At the scene, ELFD crew “taped off all streets and sidewalks in all 4 directions” and later noted that 2-D Aerial Cable Construction “workers from the crew on scene had already contacted most of the residents and advised them to evacuate.”
Tickner and other residents had ample praise for the 2-D Aerial team’s actions. Rather than evacuating themselves to a safe distance, those workers ran from house to house urging people to turn nothing off or on and to leave immediately.
“I’m glad that the internet guys were so diligent,” Tickner told ELi. “Even though it wasn’t their fault, they tried really hard to get people out of there.”
According to ELFD’s narrative report, the first crew from Consumers Energy arrived at about 6 p.m., or about 45 minutes after the rupture, and they immediately called for “additional resources. They determined it was a 2 inch main and needed to be stopped from both directions.”
The gas was finally “clamped off” at about 9:25 p.m., three hours after the rupture. At that point, ELFD called “all clear.” Consumers Energy spent several days more digging in the area to repair the problem.
Consumers Energy has confirmed for ELi that the lines were not marked.
Terry DeDoes, spokesperson for Consumers Energy, told ELi that employees of 2-D Aerial Cable Construction are right: the line they hit was not marked. This happened even though 2-D Aerial Cable called MISS DIG for marking, again and again, as they found unmarked lines while digging for this project.
DeDoes also confirmed to ELi that it was specifically USIC that was supposed to have marked the lines.
USIC is a national private company that bills itself as “the most trusted name in underground utility damage prevention” and says its mission is “to deliver quality, efficient, safe, and innovative solutions to protect our partner’s [sic] infrastructure and critical assets.”
USIC has not responded to requests for comment on this story.
Michigan law requires that utility companies respond promptly and appropriately when people call MISS DIG. But in 2019, state legislators found “massive violation of Michigan’s MISS DIG law,” according to the Detroit Free Press.
In January 2020, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel arranged for Consumers to pay a total of $545,000 related to “the utility’s failure to mark its natural gas lines after receiving dig notices as required” by law.
For her part, Tickner doesn’t trust the governmental safety nets.
“People need to trust their own senses,” she told ELi. “If you smell gas, don’t assume the fire department or the police department is going to confirm your suspicions that this is bad news. Just go!”
And then, when you are safe, call 911.
Disclosure: Alice Dreger lives across the street from Amanda Tickner and also evacuated during the emergency. Her basement was checked for gas during the event.
Correction, Aug. 3, 2021: The original headline of this article identified USIC as a MISS DIG contractor. That company is hired by Consumers Energy to mark its utility lines. The headline and one sentence have been changed to reflect this.