Columbia Gas shut off service to 13 homes in the West Toledo subdivision on Oakside Drive on May 31, and the utility company has no immediate plans to turn the gas back on. Naturally occurring methane, company officials say, is seeping out of the ground in the subdivision, creating dangerously high levels of the gas. If the gas leaks into the houses, a pilot light for natural gas could ignite the methane and cause an explosion.
There's no identifiable source for the methane. And, apparently, there are no government agencies with jurisdiction over the matter.
The predicament is rare enough that there seems to be no protocol to fix it. Columbia Gas says it won't turn the gas back on without a consent agreement signed by a government authority that says gas service is safe, but none will, leaving residents in the middle.
"I just want my gas on," GrayStone resident Kris Jensen said.
Methane isn't toxic, and it has no odor. But at certain percentages in the air — ones that Columbia Gas says are present in GrayStone Woods — it can be flammable.
Columbia said it has a zero-tolerance policy with methane near home foundations, and cutting off service in GrayStone has left residents without gas to heat water or clothes dryers, and fuel gas stoves since May 31.
"Everything is like Little House on the Prairie," resident John Insco said.
Residents dispute the company's gas findings, contending that a firm contracted by subdivision developer Seneca Building Co. showed little or no methane.
Although no one has pinpointed the source of the gas, the former swampland atop which much of Toledo rests is the likely culprit for the methane, said Dina Pierce, a spokesman for the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.
GrayStone Woods, only a couple of years old, was built on a wooded area in a floodplain, residents said, and significant biomass, decomposition of which is a common source of methane, may underlie the whole subdivision.
There's nothing the Ohio EPA can do about the methane, Ms. Pierce said. The agency has no regulatory authority over Columbia Gas to tell it what to do, and the methane isn't there from contamination.
"We have no jurisdiction over gas produced by nature," she said.
The agency with regulatory authority over Columbia Gas also says it is powerless. Matt Schilling, a spokesman for the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, said that because the gas is not from a pipeline, it's outside the commission's jurisdiction. He said PUCO for now is deferring to Columbia Gas' judgment about when to turn the gas back on. Mr. Schilling did not know what agency, if any, has jurisdiction over the matter. "I don't know if anyone really does," he said.
Columbia Gas officials say they won't turn service back on unless some agency in charge signs an agreement that says mitigation systems are in place that makes gas service safe.
Neither city environmental workers nor fire officials are methane remediation experts, mayoral spokesman Jen Sorgenfrei said, and the city isn't qualified to tell Columbia Gas what's safe. It also can't make Columbia Gas do anything about it.
"For us, the bottom line is we don't have any regulatory authority over any of it," Ms. Sorgenfrei said. "The decision to terminate service was not made by the city, and we don't have jurisdiction to require them to turn service back on."
What is Methane
Methane is a colorless, odorless, and flammable gas that is formed by the decomposition of vegetation.
No one has found a direct source for the gas at the subdivision, but the former swampland atop which much of Toledo rests is the likely culprit for the methane,according to the Ohio EPA.
The subdivision was built on a wooded area in a flood plain, meaning the subdivision probably sits on significant biomass, which can contribute to methane formation through its decomposition.
If methane leaks into a house, the flame of a pilot light inside could ignite the methane and cause an explosion.
Homeowners are frustrated that there's no answer in sight and no one who appears willing or able to help them, Ms. Hensley said. Little information has come from Columbia Gas; residents praised Seneca representatives for keeping them informed. But their efforts haven't resulted in the gas being turned back on.
City council has now stepped in. Council President Joe McNamara called a utilities and public service committee hearing for Monday at 4 p.m. and said he hopes to bring all parties together. Mr. McNamara said that council, like everyone else, has no authority here and there's no pending legislation. He just hopes to serve as a facilitator for a solution.
"No one has ever heard of this before," Mr. McNamara said. "This is a completely novel situation."
Officials continue to meet about GrayStone and hope to reach a resolution.
Contact Nolan Rosenkrans at: email@example.com or 419-724-6086.