Natural gas leak forced evacuation of COVID-19 testing lab in Augusta

July 30, 2020

Construction workers are seen on Columbia Street around 3:40 p.m. Tuesday near the Maine State House in Augusta. An earlier gas leak on Columbia Street brought a response from Augusta Fire, Augusta Police and Capitol Police and caused residents and workers in nearby state buildings to be evacuated. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

AUGUSTA — A gas leak on Tuesday forced the evacuation of a number of properties around 19 Columbia St., including the state health lab testing for coronavirus, after a construction worker hit a Maine Natural Gas pipeline.

The leak was one of two in the area caused by the same West Gardiner contracting firm in recent weeks, a state official said, and both incidents are under investigation.

One of the properties evacuated was the state’s Health and Environmental Testing Lab, which does testing for COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus.

Maine Center for Disease Control spokesman Robert Long said staff were out of the building for about an hour and 15 minutes before returning to work.

“Normal operations promptly resumed, and the disruption is not expected to affect the lab’s ability to provide results within 24-48 hours of receiving samples for COVID-19 testing,” Long said in an email Wednesday.

Augusta rescue officials responded to the leak just before 3 p.m. Tuesday, evacuating eight to 10 properties by Fire Chief Roger Audette’s estimate. Audette said the leak occurred when an employee of McGee Construction, a West Gardiner contractor, hit the line during road construction.

McGee is working to reconstruct Columbia Street, as well as replace water mains, a sewer and stormwater pipes in a project commissioned by the city and the Greater Augusta Utility District.

Maine Natural Gas spokeswoman Catharine Hartnett said the company was alerted to the leak at 2:55 p.m. and technicians arrived on scene 15 minutes later to turn off the gas. She said the line was running at about 11:30 p.m. Tuesday evening.

She said Maine Natural Gas notified the Public Utilities Commission after an assessment, and is cooperating with the investigation.

Capitol Police, bottom left, Augusta Police, bottom right, and Augusta Fire, top, are seen at the corner of State and Union streets responding to a gas leak around 3:30 p.m. Tuesday near the Maine State House in Augusta. The gas leak was on Columbia Street behind the building, 221 State St., that houses the state coronavirus testing lab. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Utility District General Manager Brian Tarbuck said another natural gas line was damaged about six weeks ago during the project.

Asked why a line has been hit twice, he said the line’s location may not have been precisely marked on the first occasion and the second time a structure that comes off of the pipe was hit, which also may not have been marked.

“I’m afraid there’s no good excuse for it, unfortunately,” he said, adding that the contractor would have to pay any damages related to the leak.

Harry Lanphear, a spokesman for the Public Utilities Commission, confirmed that there are two ongoing investigations: one from Tuesday and one from June 8 involving a Summit Natural Gas pipeline, also involving McGee Construction and their work on Columbia Street. Lanphear said the commission is required to look at a contractor’s previous history of incidents during this investigation and multiple incidences could bring a heavier penalty against the contractor.

“We do look back at prior incident when the same contractor is involved,” he said. “In this Maine Natural Gas issue, we will look back to see other incidents involving that vendor, which is McGee.”

Lanphear said the investigation of the June 8 incident is “close to done.”

An employee of McGee Construction said project manager Mike McGee had no comment on the leak Wednesday.

In December 2019, the Kennebec Journal reported that a McGee Construction worker hit and broke a water main with an excavator under Bridge Street in Gardiner. Damage from that incident was estimated to be between $5,000 to $10,000.