Propane tank barriers may be required

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Local regulations are in the works involving safety of propane tanks, as Twin County officials try to prevent explosive accidents such as the one that killed two Fries women on Dec. 10.

Iva Martin, 78, and daughter Mary Kay Leonard, 52, died as the result of burns they received after a vehicle rolled into a propane tank, causing a leak.

A clothes dryer's pilot light in the Fries laundromat ignited the gas, and the explosion injured another three people.

The incident set off surveys about propane tanks in use across the Twin Counties, and reviews of applicable ordinances and codes by local officials.

One question that quickly arose after the Fries incident was why no barriers were in place around the propane tank that was situated just off Main Street in the middle of town.

And what the officials found has motivated them to take extra steps to protect public safety.

In Carroll County, Emergency Services Coordinator Joe Roma has begun work on an ordinance that would affect large commercial above-ground storage tanks for flammables.

The ordinance that Roma is developing proposes a plan review by emergency services and the building official, and erecting barriers around large commercial tanks.

Tanks with more than 10,000 gallons must be approved by Carroll officials, the proposed ordinance specifies.

"Any tank assembly exposed to vehicular traffic shall have collision barrier posts installed on all corners and sides so exposed and shall not ... be spaced more than four feet apart center to center," the proposal says. "The posts shall be four feet in the ground and four feet above the ground and filled with concrete."

Roma continues to get input from the building official's office.

"We're just trying to pass an ordinance in the county so we won't have an accident," he said. "So hopefully a vehicle won't penetrate [the barrier] and that will stop a vehicle from hitting the tanks."

He came to the conclusion that an ordinance is needed after surveying many existing tanks in Hillsville and Carroll County.

"The majority do not have any barriers, and if they do, they're wrong," he told The Gazette.

Galax Building Official Terry Atwell has inspected 105 propane tanks occupied by commercial property in Galax. Of that number, Atwell said, only about 19 percent with the national fire code. Atwell said there are about 75-80 businesses left to inspect.

"The vehicle protection code has been around since 1969," said Atwell. "This [national fire code] is just something that got overlooked."

According to the vehicle impact protection code, guard posts must be constructed of steel not less than four inches in diameter and concrete filled, should be spaced no more than four feet between posts on center, set no less than three feet deep in a concrete footing of not less than 15-inch diameter and set with the top of the posts not less than three feet above ground, and be located no less than three feet from the protected object.

Other barriers should be a minimum of 36 inches in height and resistant against a force of 12,000 pounds applied 36 inches above the adjacent ground surface.

Atwell will be closely monitoring propane tanks throughout Galax. If property owners are found in violation of code, Atwell contacts the occupant and allows up to 21 days to fix the problem.

If action is not taken, the occupant is warned and given another 21 days to voluntarily make needed adjustments. After that, the city seeks legal action.

After the commercial property inspection, Atwell will move on to residential properties. He said propane tanks on residential properties are not as exposed to traffic as business areas are.

The city is also checking to make sure that propane providers Blue Ridge Propane Inc. and Suburban Propane comply with the code.

"After the issue in Fries, people have been very cooperative and some businesses and residential properties have taken the initiative into their own hands by calling us to make sure their tanks are okay," said Atwell.

Atwell said all expenses involved in complying with the code are left up to the client or provider.

"If [the expense] saves a life, it's well worth it," he said.