• Utility officials continue to investigate Princeton natural gas fire


    The co-owner of a $700,000 road grinder destroyed in a gas fire Wednesday said yesterday that PSE&G failed to properly mark the location of an underground gas pipe.

    The blaze filled a Princeton neighborhood with noxious black smoke and forced the evacuation of eight homes. The cause is under investigation by the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities, the Princeton Engineering Department and PSE&G.

    A PSE&G spokeswoman said yesterday the company had been out to the site prior to the road work to mark the location of utility lines but that a review would be conducted to find out what went wrong.

    The natural gas fire burned for more than six hours after the milling machine — designed to remove surface layers of asphalt and concrete — rolled over the site of a shallow, 6 inch gas line that feeds into a main. Officials said it is not clear whether the milling machine actually cut into the gas line or ruptured it owing it the weight of its tonnage.

    Town engineer Robert Kiser said gas lines are typically buried 2-3 feet under the surface, but this one was just a few inches below the road surface. The milling machine was cutting as deep as 8 inches below the surface, he said.

    The machine’s owner said he’s lost a brand-new milling machine that had only seen two hours of use.

    “Imagine you’re a hardworking individual, and you finally have enough money to purchase a brand new Mercedes-Benz convertible. You pull out of the dealership, get rear-ended and your new car is totalled,” Top Line Construction Corp. co-owner Steve Castela said. “That’s what it felt like, but probably worse. Seven hundred thousand dollars is a lot of money.”

    Castela said the construction area was not properly marked to warn about the gas line.

    “I do know that this could have been avoided if markers had been down,” he said.

    When contractors are about to start a project, they are required to call a special hotline three days in advance and provide information on the location of the work. That information is then conveyed to utility companies, who mark the area.

    Castela said he followed the guidelines and if there were markings, the operator would have stopped the machine, moved it past the line, and then physically excavated the area around the line.

    Kiser confirmed that account, saying that he saw the request to mark the site, and that while he was on scene of the fire Wednesday he also did not see any markings.

    He added that the line, what’s known as a ‘drip’, or stem from the gas main, was just a few inches underground, which he said was unusual.

    “Mains are typically 2-3 feet below the surface,” Kiser said. “Drips or stems are no different.”

    Kiser said he did not know the line was underneath the road. If he did, it would have been marked and his department would have directed the contractor around it.

    “The safety of the residents and everyone on the job is our top concern, and we’ll be working with PSE&G to review the details of this gas main and any other drips and laterals to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” he said.

    Princeton does not have a map outlining the various gas mains and lines that run under the town. “It would be helpful,” Kiser said. “We’ve asked, but we’ve never been provided that information.”

    Kiser said that it was his understanding that it was PSE&G policy to not give out that information.

    Towns, like contractors, rely on the marking system, he said.

    “I’ve been in Princeton for 30 years and the system has worked fairly well, this is the first time this has happened,” he said.

    PSE&G spokeswoman Kristine Snodgrass said that the company’s policy is to provide main location information on a project-by-project basis. Typically they provide information via pavement marking, but if a project is complex enough and site sketches are submitted to the utility company, they will mark the sketches with main locations as well.

    Snodgrass said pavement markings were put down for this project, but she could not say where they were placed.

    Where, when and if the lines were marked would be just some of the aspects that the board of public utilities would review, spokesman Greg Reinert said.

    “Any time that a natural gas line is struck, or there is a natural gas explosion, we respond and conduct reviews,” he said. “We are very strict regarding natural gas lines.”
    Gas service was restored to five properties at around 8:30 p.m. Wednesday night.

    A crane was called to the scene to remove the milling machine, which was ruined, Castela said.

    “This is my first time going through something like this, and I’m going to look to get reimbursed for our losses,” Castela said. “But no one was injured, and that’s the most important thing.”

    Top Line Construction had contracted with Princeton to reconstruct a 1,600 foot stretch of Ewing Street between Valley Road and North Harrison Street.

    Castela said their contract with the town was worth about $1 million, and work should resume next week.

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