Student claims gas odor complaints ignored; BTC blames failures in communication

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Tuesday, December 27, 2011
— Officials have revised procedures and are considering a permanent gas-sensing system after recent evacuations at Blackhawk Technical College’s main campus.

Student Crystal Benes told The Gazette she complained several times about a natural gas odor in the weeks leading up to an evacuation Dec. 8, but nothing was done.

BTC officials in a news release mentioned a previous gas-related evacuation but did not give a date. A third evacuation took place Thursday.

The gas caused her and fellow students’ headaches, dizziness and confusion, Benes believes.

Benes of Whitewater said she was told at one point to fill out a form. When she took it to the school’s welcome desk, she said, the person there didn’t know what to do with it.

Benes said she contacted the campus emergency preparedness coordinator, Kevin Wernet, on Dec. 8, and that’s apparently what triggered an investigation and the evacuation because of fears the gas could ignite and explode.

Initial investigation Dec. 8 showed “semi-safe” levels of gas, said Renae Ranguette, BTC’s vice president for finance and operations. Later, Town of Beloit Fire Department equipment registered gas levels at a “lower explosive level,” and that’s when officials decided to evacuate immediately, Ranguette said.

A second student, Rose Pomplun of Janesville, whose classes are in the same lower-level area where Benes detected the odor, said she had been out of school for several weeks before the Dec. 8 incident because of heart palpitations, dizziness, fainting, vomiting and headaches.

Pomplun said she didn’t link her symptoms to natural gas until she came upon Benes’ complaints in a Facebook group.

Pomplun said she attended classes in that area of the building four days a week for eight to nine hours a day and wonders how long she was ingesting the gas.

Pomplun said she kept up with her classes online but lost participation points, and her grades suffered. She withdrew from one class for medical reasons.

Benes said she has multiple sclerosis and believes that’s why her symptoms might have been stronger. Her neurologist noticed that she called every Monday, but her symptoms would disappear on weekends when she wasn’t in school.

The Dec. 8 incident was traced to a leak in a boiler room, which was repaired the same night, Ranguette said.

The other boilers were inspected, and no problems were found, BTC reported in a news release.

It appears part of the problem was communications. When complaints were received before Dec. 8, Ranguette said, the location of the smell and the identity of the student were not passed on, so workers didn’t know where to check.

Procedures and training have been changed so that maintenance staff always get the complainant’s identity and a location for suspect smells, Ranguette said.

Also causing confusion when complaints were received was the fact that BTC was already fixing a gas-odor problem in another part of the building, Ranguette said.

In that first incident, gas was being vented, as it should have been, through a safety-release valve, but calm winds allowed the gas to be drawn into the building through a fresh-air intake, Ranguette said.

When complaints were received without a specific location, staff thought the complaints referred to the problem already being addressed, Ranguette said.

BTC is closed for holiday break, so officials were not available to confirm the date of the first evacuation. The Town of Beloit Fire Department said it responded for a gas odor at BTC on Oct. 24.

Ranguette did not determine that anyone became ill because of gas leaks, but that was not the focus of her investigation, she said.

BTC has mobile gas-sensing equipment but not a permanent sensing system, Ranguette said.

Officials are considering installing a system that would include sensors in the campus’ three boiler rooms and a monitoring service that would tip off officials even when the building was not in use, Ranguette said.

The campus already has a fire-suppression system that is monitored by an outside service, and that same company is being asked to supply a quote to add gas monitoring to its duties, Ranguette said.

Latest incident tied to culinary kitchen

Firefighters were called to Blackhawk Technical College around midday Thursday for a third gas-related incident in three months.

BTC issued a press release Monday, saying it was taking the incidents seriously.

The latest evacuation came after staff members reported a gas odor in the upper level of the central campus’ main building, according to the news release.

Firefighters located the problem in a double oven in the culinary prep kitchen. The oven was emitting gas because of a blown-out pilot and leaky valves, the news release states.

“It appears the gas from the double oven was venting through the kitchen exhaust system, and due to the wind conditions, that exhaust tracked along the building and was drawn back in through a fresh-air intake serving the upper level of the building,” according to the news release.

“Blackhawk Technical College takes the health and safety of students, staff, and visiting public very seriously,” the news release states.

Last updated: 7:02 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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