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Crash into gas line nets drunk driving charge

Some evacuated residents unclear of when to return safely home
by: Stover E. Harger III, NW Natural Gas employees begin repairs on a broken gas regulator May 16, after it was damaged in a car crash the previous afternoon. Area residents were evacuated as a precaution for a few hours following the accident.

A St. Helens man was arrested on a variety of charges including driving while intoxicated after he reportedly ran his car into a natural gas regulator near the Scappoose Fred Meyer on May 15, sparking a small grass fire and causing more than 20 businesses and homes to be evacuated.

The destroyed regulator and exposed pipe released 1.1 million cubic feet of gas over a period of several hours, said John Shull, assistant chief at the Scappoose Rural Fire District.

But the released gas 'didn't have an ignitable source down at the ground level,' he said, and was dissipating into the air. However, there were plenty of potential ways the gas could have ignited - from vehicles commuting along the neighboring highway to the grass fire caused by the wrecked car's exhaust. Which is why Shull said emergency personnel evacuated the area and closed Highway 30 near Havlik Drive for nearly three hours as the fire was doused and the gas turned off.

NW Natural Gas Spokesperson Melissa Moore said that because the gas was dissipating over a long period of time and wasn't trapped, the situation wasn't as dangerous as it could have been.

The driver, 46-year-old Scott Wilson Flinn, and his passenger were not injured in the crash.

Flinn reportedly told officers he hadn't felt well before the crash and this physical condition may have caused him to 'black out.' He is charged with reckless driving, reckless endangerment and DUII.

Earlier that evening, a witness had called 9-1-1 to describe a car identical to Flinn's driving erratically near Cornelius Pass, swerving between lanes, speeding and tailgating.

Moore said it's not such a big deal to have a regulator, which adjusts the pressure in a gas line, out of commission at this time of year since few people are using their heaters in the warmer weather.

Unfortunately, she said, 'a couple times each year, people run into gas lines.'

The gas was shut off that night as a precaution and has remained off while NW Natural crews work to replace the regulator and make upgrades.

Cheryl Engstrom, spokeswoman with the Scappoose Rural Fire District, said emergency personnel used the Columbia Alert Network to call residents' landlines and let them know about the evacuation in the area between Havlik Road and Bonneville Road.

C.A.N. calls local landlines automatically, but a problem arises when people are no longer near those phones.

'A lot of people were evacuated, but they didn't know when to come back,' Engstrom said.

Scappoose Police Chief Doug Greisen said residents wandered back after several hours and asked officers if they could return to their homes.

To receive emergency alerts and updates on a cell phone, a resident must register the cell phone number at columbia911.com.