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Scotsville St. residents voiced safety concerns to Columbia aldermen

Four Scotsville Street residents told the Columbia Board of Aldermen on Feb. 5 they want assurances of their safety or removal of the nearby Piedmont Natural Gas “city gate” from their neighborhood.

Janet Bowser, Vanessa Hassell, Clydette Overton, and Jimmy Spencer spoke during the public comment period.

Their concerns originated from the pre-dawn evacuation of 15 Scotsville residents on Jan. 5 to Zion Grove Disciples Church two blocks away, when snow covered the streets and the temperature was 16 degrees. Three were transported by ambulance.

Sheriff’s Sgt. Raymond Allen said he recommended the evacuation as a safety measure after gas was observed escaping from the nearby above-ground pipes.

PNG personnel repaired the leak, and the residents returned home in late morning.

“Nobody in Scotsville is using natural gas, and it makes us feel that everybody else is benefitting at our expense,” Spencer told the aldermen. “We ought to be compensated.”

Clydette Overton said the gas odor was there “every day before and after” the Jan. 5 evacuation. She said PNG told her the 16-degree temperature “caused the spray,” as the escaping gas condensed. The installer asked why the city gate was put there in the first place, she said.

Janet Bowser pointed out that the PNG facility is directly across Ludington Drive from Kiddy Park, a small, fenced-in, town-owned children’s playground. “It [the city gate] should be no less than 100 feet from the playground. Was the town aware of the location before it was installed?”

[The playground was constructed before the natural gas pipeline came to Columbia. The gas transmission line is buried under the Scuppernong River – and the playground – and surfaces on the east side of Ludington Drive at the city gate.]

“We need a safe way out,” Vanessa Hassell said, and then asked if Emergency Management [a county department] has “a protocol in place?”

She added that Kiddy Park is less than 50 feet away, and there are no safety measures in place. The Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge headquarters and the Tyrrell County Visitors Center are also nearby, Hassell said.

Then she asked what are the possibilities of the city gate being relocated?

Spencer broadened the subject by stating that a $740,000 grant was awarded about 10 years ago to rehabilitate houses in that area, but nothing happened.

Angela Spencer called on the town to clean out the ditch beside Cypress and Cedar streets to aid in drainage and to build up the streets to avoid flooding.

Mayor James Cahoon replied that PNG has 97 customers in Columbia now. He asked Hassell to assemble for him all the residents’ questions and concerns. And he announced that he intends to meet with PNG representatives during February.

Bowser asked, “Who approved the [city gate] site?”

Town manager Rhett White commented that local PNG personnel told him they want officers from Charlotte to speak for the company. “They wanted a closed meeting, but this is not a subject that is exempt from the Open Meetings Law.” He added that PNG is a state-regulated utility.

Spencer injected, “Our lives are in danger.”

Hassell asked who reports on repairs to the city gate or other PNG property in the town? “Let someone know. We’re being put out of place; we need reassurance.”

“I fear for my life,” Spencer said.

Mayor Cahoon promised another meeting to answer the questions.

Later in the meeting, Alderman Hal Fleming commented that PNG missed a public relations opportunity “if there ever was one” in declining to meet the citizens, and Alderman Bryan Owens said PNG’s silence could be construed as their having something to hide.

The aldermen had held a meeting on January 16, and Tyrrell County Emergency Management Coordinator Wesley Hopkins, Tyrrell Volunteer Fire Department Lee Scripture and Chief Johnny Spencer, and Sgt. Kevin Sawyer with the Tyrrell County Sheriff’s Office were present to answer residents’ questions about the repeated gas leaks. Area residents were notified but none attended.

Hopkins explained that “natural gas is not as volatile as generally thought,” that he had been told it is safe beyond 50 feet when natural gas is leaking in an open-air setting.

Spencer said the January 5 incident occurred when a valve let off pressure for safety purposes in response to over-pressure. He added that natural gas has “low flammability” relative to propane fuel.

Sgt. Sawyer said that a similar leak at the same place was reported around January 12.

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