The first inkling residents of Sloan Terrace had that there might be a problem in their neighborhood last week came when representatives of Southern California Gas Company began knocking on their doors around 9 p.m. Wednesday.
Erik Pybas, who was watching television alone because his family was already asleep, said he was a little leery about answering the doorbell at the late hour.
“You never know who’s there, that late,” he said Tuesday.
The late night caller was one of several Gas Company representatives going door-to-door checking gas appliances in homes after methane was discovered during a routine pipeline inspection.
Pybas and several neighbors were a little overwhelmed by the company’s response. He said the street was so full of people locating gas lines and checking the soil and gas meters that residents had to park around the corner.
Israel Long, who has lived in his Sloan Terrace home since it was built in 2005, pointed out areas Tuesday where the bark mulch in his flower beds was cleared so Gas Company inspectors could probe the ground. The lines leading from the street to Long’s gas meter were also outlined in bright orange paint.
Lewis Bowers said the inspectors looked a little like the “Ghostbusters” with their backpacks, connecting hoses and probes.
“There were guys here all night. They went door to door,” he said. “They’ve been here every day trying to find out what it is.”
Methane was found in the soil around 19 of the two dozen homes on the block-long street, according to Gas Company spokesperson Angela Fentiman.
“Basically, we were performing some routine maintenance of our system and we noticed what we initially thought was a leak. We performed some additional tests and found out it wasn’t from our system,” Fentiman said.
Once they determined the gas wasn’t from their pipes, Gas Company representatives met with Santa Maria Utilities Director Rick Sweet. City staff monitored air quality along the street on Friday last week, and tested manholes on Sloan Terrace and two other streets.
Sweet said no traces of methane were found in the sewer system. Utilities Department technicians continued to test connection boxes in front of each home this week.
Brandon Johnson did the work on Monday and found only the slightest trace of the gas in a couple of locations.
The “field gas,” of which methane is the primary component, was likely created by degrading organic material that was covered many years ago when the area was graded for development, according to consultants to the city.
Fire Chief Dan Orr said he’s spoken with people who remember a eucalyptus grove in the area before it was developed, which could have been the source of the organic material.
The experts think the methane might be coming to the surface as the water table rises because of recent rains, Orr said.
“There’s a number of possible sources. I believe that’s the most likely source,” Sweet said. “This is the first time that we’ve come across it in 28 years that I’ve been here.”
Concern about the integrity of gas lines was heightened in 2010 when part of a San Bruno neighborhood was destroyed by a Pacific Gas & Electric Co. pipeline explosion.
The concern about what lies underneath newer Santa Maria homes was heightened in about 10 years ago when it was discovered that homes were built over abandoned oil sumps that were never cleaned up.
A number of homes in the Sunrise Hills neighborhood, not far from Sloan Terrace, were demolished as a result of the clean up.
Pybas said one of the reasons he’s concerned is the number of children who play on the street and in the yards where the gas has been found.
“I don’t think it is a big deal. We got one notice and they came to check the (gas appliances),” he said. “If it would have been something dangerous, they’d still be doing something more about it.”
The Santa Maria Fire Department established a voice mailbox for residents to call with their questions or concerns about the situation. It can be reached at 925-0951, ext. 120.
Orr said the department received just one call over the weekend.
“We’ve contacted everybody and their uncle. Everybody knows what’s going on. We’re going to continue to monitor the situation,” Orr said.