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The Daily Tar Heel

Gas Fire Suspends $1.5 Million OWASA Construction Project

The blaze, which lit up the intersection of East Franklin Street and Estes Drive, began Tuesday at 8:51 p.m. The fire started when a backhoe struck a 4-inch diameter plastic natural gas line and has indefinitely suspended an Orange Water and Sewer Authority construction project outside of Walker's BP Service, 1500 E. Franklin St.

OWASA was contracting the $1.5 million construction project, which is a part of the authority's Capital Improvement Plan.

Imtiaz Ahmad, director of engineering and planning, said the contracted company, Thalle Construction, was working on a project that stretches 5,000 feet from the bridge near Estes Drive on East Franklin Street toward Fordham Boulevard.

An OWASA press release stated that the gas line was about 18 inches beneath the top surface of the street. The pipe sat between a layer of asphalt and one of concrete. OWASA officials issued a stop work order to Thalle Construction on Thursday --two days after the incident.

Ahmad said the stop work order will be effective until OWASA further reviews operations and coordination procedures. The company was replacing a 16-inch water line, the majority of which lies in the middle of the road, Ahmad said.

Ahmad also said the company, which replaced 500 feet by Tuesday, was hired by OWASA but works independently. "We don't direct them on their day-to-day work because that gets into their means and processes," he said. "(Thalle) are a qualified contractor."

Thalle Construction could not be reached for comment Friday.

A construction worker was admitted to UNC Hospitals on Tuesday night with burns to his face, neck and arms. The worker, whose identity has not yet been released, was listed in stable condition Friday.

Chapel Hill Fire Battalion Chief Bill Minton said Thalle Construction followed basic procedure for contracting the job. "That is the responsibility of the contractor to do that before any one can dig. Utilities have to be located, and in this case the contractor did follow the proper procedures and located the utilities."

Heidi Henderson, spokeswoman for PSNC Energy, said, "We typically install our gas lines a minimum 36 inches deep."

The gas company arrived on the scene Tuesday around 9:15 p.m.

After the incident, PSNC Energy employees worked from 11 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. to completely repair the gas line, Henderson said.

But officials still are puzzled about what started the fire, which was fueled by the gas line. "Anything in that area could have set off a spark," Minton said. "Static electricity can make things like that ignite."

Ahmad said OWASA and the construction company are now taking steps to ensure the safety of future construction projects. "We know now there are a lot of shallow corridors," he said.

"What we are saying is gather all the information, and, if there's a utility tract that is too shallow, let's regroup and come up with a plan to explore the utility in the safest manner possible."

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