A Nicor marker flag shows the precise location of a gas leak on the 1000 block of Florence Avenue. The leak has been reported for six months, says a citizen. It was finally fixed on June 5. Photo by Patrick Engel

Harsh winters take a toll on everyone, and for Evanston’s Utilities Department, this past winter’s abnormally cold temperatures brought extra challenges. The City’s gas mains – some of which are over 70 years old – bore the brunt of the cold and snow, and the winter’s effects on them are starting to show. The Utilities Department has received calls from citizens reporting gas leaks all across the City, most recently about a leak on the 1000 block of Florence Avenue, which has been troubling citizens for months.

In a neighborhood online chat, a resident of the area claimed that more than 25 people have notified Nicor of the leak over the past six months. The resident claimed Nicor’s only response was placing yellow marker flags in the ground by the leak. However, the City was not made aware of this leak until May 22 because citizens had been calling Nicor directly and neglecting to notify the Utilities Department.

Utilities Department Director Dave Stoneback said that he became aware of the leak through the Forestry Department.

“Our Forestry Department went out and they were going to trim some trees [on Florence], and they smelled the gas and made me aware of it,” said Mr. Stoneback.

The Fire Department was sent to the scene because some residents were concerned that the leak was dangerous and the tree trimmers could have “ignited a fireball,” according to the neighborhood chat. However, Shift Chief Bill Muno quickly squashed that rumor and said there was no danger of fire.

Chief Muno also said that leaks like this one are all over Evanston, and the Fire Department frequently responds to similar gas leak calls.

The large number of leaks did not surprise 4th Ward Alderman Don Wilson, who became aware of the leak on May 22 as well. He said his impression that Nicor has been telling residents who call that they would fix the leak. But Mr. Stoneback said, a sincere response was not received until the City “encouraged” Nicor to examine it. Mr. Stoneback also said he was not surprised at Chief Muno’s comments, and he confirmed that he has been informed of numerous leaks since the fall.

“There was a leak on Woodlawn earlier this year, and there was a leak on Hillside earlier this year, and I’m sure there are several that I’m unaware of,” Mr. Stoneback said.  He added that he has known of a leak on Noyes Street since early April, but he said residents claim to have reported the Noyes leak to Nicor in the fall.

“Evanston has no real way of forcing to Nicor to do any work or to get them out here right away, except just keep pestering them, and that’s what I’ve been doing,” Mr. Stoneback said. “I got an email back saying they will address the leak on Noyes on May 30 and the one on Florence on June 5.”

Nicor actually fixed the leak on Noyes on May 29.

Mr. Stoneback said that the winter temperatures and the aging gas mains were the likely cause of many of the leaks:

“This past winter made it very challenging for Nicor, and their older gas mains are made of cast-iron, similar to Evanston’s older water mains. We know that when frost goes in and out of the ground, it causes the ground to move and causes these older cast-iron mains to break.

“Nicor is regulated by the Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC), and [the ICC], based on how much gas is leaking, sets up a time schedule in which these leaks must be addressed, and Nicor is very conscientious about getting them complete within that time. Nicor isn’t just serving Evanston, they serve a lot of communities, and they have lots of gas leaks all over the place that they are trying to address. Some are worse than the ones that are in Evanston, so they’re addressing them within priority and within the guidelines of the ICC.”

Duane Bourne, a Nicor spokesman, said in an email that Nicor approaches gas leak calls seriously.

“Our safety program is regulated at the state and federal levels, and we strictly adhere to all applicable guidelines in investigating any outside leaks in our system,” Mr. Bourne’s email said. “We undertake a range of safety programs, including installing above-ground markers and adding mercaptan – the rotten egg smell – to odorless natural gas so the public [is] aware of leaks.”

Nicor also has a plan to replace all the cast-iron gas pipelines in Evanston by 2017. The company has already filed a $170 million plan to the ICC.

Mr. Stoneback further detailed the modernization plan. He said, “Nicor has three large projects going on in Evanston currently where they are replacing their old infrastructure.  They have shared with me and Public Works plans for replacing gas mains in 2015, 2016 and 2017. There are gas mains from the ’30s they will work on after that.”

When Nicor fixed the leaks on Florence and Noyes, they put in a repair sleeve to stop the leak. Mr. Stoneback said those mains are in the plans to be replaced by 2017.

Ald. Wilson had a message for citizens who smell gas leaks: “If you do smell it, it is important to make the call to have it done properly. Tell 311 so they can get the work done.”