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caption: A gas leak in Seattle's University District resulted in an evacuation order for surrounding blocks. The mist in the distance of this image is water vapor cooled by natural gas spewing from underground.
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A gas leak in Seattle's University District resulted in an evacuation order for surrounding blocks. The mist in the distance of this image is water vapor cooled by natural gas spewing from underground.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Gil Aegerter

Seattle construction causes two major gas leaks in a week

Seattle has had two major gas leaks in less than a week, both caused by construction workers digging in the wrong place.

Contractors laying fiber optic cable for Texas-based Fortune 500 company Crown Castle caused Monday's leak in the University District.

While not a household name, Crown Castle is one of the nation’s largest owners of the electronic infrastructure that our always-connected society relies on. The Texas firm owns 75,000 miles of fiber optic cable and 40,000 cell phone towers across the country.

An excavator digging a trench for fiber cables on Monday down the middle of Northeast 45th Street in Seattle’s University District broke through a two-inch gas pipe.

The uncontrolled spewing of pressurized, explosive gas for about four hours led to several blocks of shops and high-rise buildings being evacuated. No injuries were reported.

After the leak was plugged Monday afternoon, the Seattle Fire Department and gas utility Puget Sound Energy declined to identify the companies involved in puncturing the gas line with their trench digging.

But the next morning, excavation crews with North Sky Communications were placing fiber-optic cable in the same trench.

caption: North Sky Communications workers prepared to pour concrete in a trench on Northeast 45th Street in Seattle on Oct. 15. 
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By Thursday morning, a different contractor, P.M.G. Excavating of Maple Valley, Washington, was working in the 45th Street trench.

KUOW obtained copies of the street-use permits for that work from the Seattle Department of Transportation. Those documents identify Crown Castle as the project owner.

Calls to Vancouver, Washington-based North Sky Communications were not returned.

Crown Castle declined to answer questions about the incident or its work on Northeast 45th Street.

“We are committed to the safety of the community, our employees and our contractors, and we will continue to aid in the investigation in any way we can,” Crown Castle spokesperson Dayna Lurie said in an email.

The Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission is investigating the Monday leak, as well as one that occurred Friday.

PSE is investigating as well, according to spokesperson Janet Kim. The company has 30 days to submit a report on the events leading to Monday's leak.

In an email, Kim said Monday's break happened near a “T” junction in a gas line. Repair crews had to jackhammer through 2 feet of concrete to reach and plug up pipe at three different locations.

By state law, anyone digging more than a foot deep has to call 811 or contact the Utility Notification Center (of the famous "Call before you dig" slogan) two business days before digging begins.

“When you call the number, the utility companies will come out,” Kate Griffith with the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission said. “They will locate all of their services with spray paint and other markers.”

Three Puget Sound Energy workers were injured on Friday when the gas leak in North Seattle that they were attempting to cap caught fire.