Since August, gas leaks have plagued the Hilltop. There have been four leaks in the last six months in gas pipes near University Center, McLaren Conference Center, and the Sobrato Center, all of which affected students living on campus. When they occur, PG&E shuts off the gas supply to USF’s lower campus, leaving students in Toler, Hayes-Healy, and Gillson Halls without heat or hot water, and forcing the Market Café to limit its options significantly.
The term “gas leak” may evoke fear, but students and parents received little information on the implications of the leaks. “My mom had called me super worried and was asking if I could smell the gas,” first-year architecture major Darleen Fernadiaz told the Foghorn in September. Thankfully, USF students were not exposed to natural gas inhalation.
In each case, PG&E has detected the leaks quickly and notified USF about the danger. When they discover a leak, PG&E shuts off the main gas supply to the affected area. From there, USF Facilities Management works to repair the leak, as it is on private property. This entails digging up the pipe, without damaging it further. PG&E tests the repairs before restoring the supply of gas. The leaks have been repaired in a few hours each time they’ve been detected.
While the construction on campus continues connecting Kalmanovitz Hall and St. Ignatius Church to the main heating line, this construction is not the cause of the recent leaks. The damage to the gas pipes on lower campus can be traced back to an on-campus construction project over 10 years ago, according to USF Spokesperson Kellie Samson. That construction project damaged the protective wrapping on several of the gas pipes, though the damage did not pose a threat until now.
Over time, natural deterioration on grounded pipes has opened very small holes in the pipes, allowing natural gas to leak out. The amount of leaking gas from these pinhole-sized gaps was so small that neither the university nor PG&E were concerned enough to evacuate the area, and no leaks have been detected inside any campus building, which lowers the threat of natural gas inhalation. However, students have been advised to avoid certain areas of campus due to leaks on several occasions.
Currently, anticipating when or if there will be a new leak is not possible. The slight damage caused by the construction years ago wasn’t detected or documented, so the level of deterioration in any given place along the pipes remains unknown. “We are working with an outside engineering firm that specializes in condition assessment of gas lines and valves to verify the overall health of the system and identify any other issues before they result in an emergency repair,” said Samson.
Until a long-term solution is identified, USF can only repair the leaks as they are detected. In order to prevent causing further damage, construction crews use special imaging devices to detect pipes underground, excavating carefully and only when necessary.