JJ's explosion

Questions grow in natural gas explosion at JJ’s restaurant

Updated: 2013-03-05T19:16:17Z


The Kansas City Star

From the moment a sickly odor of natural gas began to fill the air around JJ’s restaurant, safety systems stretched and sometimes snapped.

Public officials are reluctant to assess blame in the Feb. 19 blast that leveled the popular restaurant near the Country Club Plaza, killing one and injuring 15. They’re awaiting the results of investigations.

But an examination of two important areas leaves little doubt that rules set up to protect the public did not work. The most likely scenarios:

• The crew that was excavating outside the popular nightspot was either working from inaccurate street marking of utility lines or it apparently punctured a gas line anyway.

• Just as crucial, the utility crew called in to shut down the gas leak either did not have easily accessible shutoff valves available, as required by law, or chose not to use them.

Other problems meeting safety standards already have been reported. Some officials, for example, want to reassess who has responsibility for evacuating a building during a gas leak.

Last week it was also discovered that the contractor had no permit to dig but had filed an application that the city said it might never have received.

Experts say the excavation and shutoff valves are core areas that state and federal safety investigators will be focusing on now.

The Kansas City Fire Department plans to issue a report in coming days, but department officials say it will be far from comprehensive. A more definitive report will come from the Missouri Public Service Commission, but that’s not likely to be for months.

“We have more questions than we have answers,” Mayor Sly James said after the explosion. “And that’s probably the way it’s going to be for a while.”

The break

Dispatcher: KC Fire. What’s the address of the emergency?

Caller: Uh, it’s the intersection of 48th and Belleview.

Dispatcher: OK.

Caller: I am to the east about 200 feet. We hit a gas line.

Dispatcher: OK. You work (for) a construction company?

Caller: Yeah. Utility contracting company, yes.

— From the 911 call at 4:54 p.m., Feb. 19

Although an attorney for the contractor excavating near JJ’s said last week that the crew may not be to blame, state officials say the gas line “was breached by a contractor.”

Assuming that’s so, the question then becomes: What led the work crew for Olathe-based Heartland Midwest LLC to hit the line while using a horizontal boring machine during an installation job for Time Warner Cable?

It could have been one of three possibilities, according to those familiar with underground excavation:

• The location of the gas line outside JJ’s was improperly marked.

The line was properly marked, but the crew somehow failed to avoid it.

• A combination of the two.

As for the marking, Heartland’s attorney, Brad Russell, said his client followed proper safety protocol.

First, the company notified the gas company and other utilities through the Missouri One Call System that a Heartland crew planned to tunnel under the street to a depth of about 7 feet.

The state requires that. Utilities have three days to mark the approximate location of their lines before work begins with color-coded stakes, flags and painted marks.

The markings are drawn or staked 2 feet on each side of the path of an underground line. The area between them is known as the tolerance zone because the line could be anywhere within that 4-foot width.

Missouri One Call System’s records show that Heartland gave notice on Feb. 6 and that the markings were drawn as of Feb. 9, some 10 days before the blast.

A time-stamped photo purportedly of the pavement outside JJ’s supplied by Heartland shows the lines still visible in the hours before the explosion. As a precaution, the company that morning had asked to have the utilities re-mark the lines.

It’s a standard practice if a project drags on for a while, said John Lansford, executive director of the Missouri One Call System.

“Typically, a lot of contractors call in when markings start to fade,” he said.

It appears the lines weren’t re-marked that day, but even so, Russell said the photo shows the previous ones to be in good shape.

That, however, leads to the follow-up question investigators surely will be asking: Were those lines accurate?

Utilities generally hire subcontractors to do the marking. The largest nationwide is USIC Locating Services, which marked the lines for Missouri Gas Energy and some of the other utilities outside JJ’s.

In a statement, USIC said its own investigation is continuing.

“At this point, our investigation shows that at the time the gas line was damaged, USIC’s marks on the ground were visible and accurate,” said Jennifer Frasier, corporate counsel.

As a rule, ground-penetrating radar and electromagnetic equipment help locators detect metal pipes and plastic ones that have a metallic tracer wire.

“If it is a metallic pipe,” said Mike Pfender, a spokesman for Kansas One-Call, “then the locate instruments are very, very accurate down to five or six feet (in depth).”

But as accurate as the equipment is said to be, it’s not foolproof, which is why Missouri and Kansas require that excavators go an extra step. They must hand dig what the industry calls potholes so workers can ascertain the depth of utility lines in the path of the boring equipment.

Heartland did that too, Russell said. The photograph of markings also shows two potholes.

So far, so good, safety experts say.

The question then becomes: What did the work crew members see when they looked down into those holes, and did they accurately measure the depth of the gas pipe?

We don’t know, as three of the four workers were injured and the company says they have not yet been interviewed.

The Public Service Commission staff will want to talk with them because it’s not uncommon for construction crews to puncture gas lines or yank them out of their fittings unknowingly even after visually locating them.

“Any locator will tell you that locating is not a precise science,” Pfender said. “There are things underground that will fool locating equipment.”

For example, a locating service might detect an old, abandoned gas line but miss the newer plastic pipe somewhere near it because the magnetic reading of the older pipe is stronger than the tracer wire on the plastic pipe.

Even after peering into the pothole, an excavator might not notice a second pipe, assume the old pipe is the one to miss, then accidentally hit the live one filled with natural gas.

Locating errors accounted for 22 percent of more than 200,000 incidents of excavation damage to underground utilities reported in North America during 2011, according to a utility-run consortium called the Common Ground Alliance.

Often it’s merely an inconvenience. But bad locating also can lead to disaster, such as the spectacular explosion that destroyed an Overland Park home in 1996 and seriously injured the two occupants when workers struck a gas line that wasn’t marked properly.

A house in Merriam blew up a year later when a drain cleaning tool struck a gas line that had been inserted through a sewer line that wasn’t marked.

USIC’s website emphasizes safety and touts a record of responsibility for only one instance of damage in 3,000 locates. Nonetheless, the company is being sued in Oklahoma by a woman who was electrocuted while digging fence postholes over an electrical line that she claims was not marked property. USIC denies the allegation.

The biggest reason for the damage of underground lines, in 41 percent of the cases, was excavator error. (Other causes included not calling officials before digging.)

The marking could be spot on, but the person using the boring equipment can make a mistake. Or the equipment can go off course by hitting a rock or some other obstruction.

“We have gas breaks quite often with all the construction we have going on,” said Danny Rotert, spokesman for Mayor Sly James. “We have a lot of guys working underground and sometimes the gas lines get nicked.”

So even when markers are accurate, things can go terribly wrong.

A Topeka woman died in 2012 when a landscaper installing a sprinkler system forgot to stop his drilling equipment shy of the gas line as he had intended and her house later exploded.

The gas

Dispatcher: OK, so is it hissing, stuff like that?

Caller: Yep.

Dispatcher: And how large is it?

Caller: Don’t know. I can’t see it. It’s under the road.

Dispatcher: OK. Alrighty. And is it above or below the shutoff valve?

Caller: Couldn’t tell you.

— Heartland Midwest employee discussing the leak near JJ’s restaurant in a 911 call

The dispatcher’s question was crucial because shutting off the gas quickly can prevent an explosion and save lives. That job fell to Missouri Gas Energy, but the gas kept flowing for more than three hours.

Why did it take so long?

One of the utility’s executives recently said the company began trying to vent the gas leak but the explosion occurred before it could be done. Then holes were dug at each end of an adjacent street and the pipe was plugged, which took two more hours.

That night raises two important issues: Did the company have nearby “critical” shutoff valves that were readily accessible, as required by law? And if so, did the company attempt to use them?

Missouri Gas Energy did not respond to requests for comment.

Mark McDonald, president of the North American Gas Workers Association, a safety advocacy group, said either a shutoff valve wasn’t available, which would be illegal, or the utility decided not to use it. Utilities often are reluctant to use the valves because they can cut gas service to hundreds of customers, he said.

“It’s incredible they took so long,” he said.

Kevin Gunn, who just resigned as chairman of the Missouri Public Service Commission, said last week that it is too early to say what happened, but shutoff valves and whether they were used will be among the things reviewed.

“There may have been reasons, but that’s what our guys are going to go over,” Gunn said.

His Friday departure as the commission’s chairman was previously announced.

In the only public comments made by Missouri Gas Energy so far, an executive at a news conference the day after the explosion provided some details about what occurred the day of the leak.

Rob Hack, the company’s chief operating officer, said that among the first things to do in a gas leak is to turn off the gas to the structure if possible, and that is under investigation by the utility.

Utility workers did move a backhoe into place and begin excavating to vent the leak, which was considered the quickest solution, before the explosion occurred. Utility crews then went to each end of the street and dug holes, which allowed an underground valve to be closed on one end and the plastic pipe crimped on the other. If those had been critical shutoff valves, though, they should not have required excavation.

“Our employees are trained to respond quickly, to make situations as safe as possible as quickly as possible,” Hack said.

But McDonald said that if the utility had acted quickly to close a shutoff valve to the area, it would likely have prevented the explosion and the blaze that followed.

“It was inexcusable,” he said.

The Public Service Commission would not comment on the role of Missouri Gas Energy until its investigation is complete, which will take months.

The location of shutoff valves may prove key.

In a leak, there are two places to stop the gas. One is at the service line to individual homes and businesses. But the leak that leveled JJ’s is thought to have been downstream from the restaurant’s valve, making the individual JJ’s valve useless. That was the information the fire department dispatcher was seeking.

The break was in a larger pipe serving the area, including JJ’s, and that left the critical shutoff valves.

Missouri law requires those valves to be readily accessible — in other words, no digging required. They typically are at the bottom of a short tube in the ground. A metal lid is flipped off the top and a special tool is inserted to turn the valve.

“You have to be able to get to them right away,” said Bob Leonberger, pipeline safety program manager for the Missouri Public Service Commission.

The valves are supposed to be inspected once a year by the utility to ensure they work and are still accessible.

The location of the valves is not public information, and the commission said it did not have it. But the valves are supposed to be spaced so that it would take no more than eight hours to restore service, a time-consuming job that requires a visit to each home or business.

The reason the shutoff valves are installed, said Frank Gallagher, at the website Natural Gas Watch, is to control an emergency like what happened in Kansas City, and any utility that doesn’t use the shutoff valves raises a number of questions.

“These are fundamental pipeline precautions,” he said. “This isn’t rocket science.”

The Missouri Gas Energy situation remains murky — where were the shutoff valves and were they accessible? — but critics say reluctance to use shutoff valves and other problems nationwide reveal a longstanding lack of emphasis on safety by those who operate the pipelines.

The American Gas Association, which represents gas utilities, rejects that assertion, saying the industry follows stringent safety rules.

“Safety is the top priority for AGA and natural gas utilities,” said Jake Rubin, a spokesman.

But the National Transportation Safety Board, which oversees large transmission pipelines, recently has said that it is concerned about recurring problems in the industry, including slow emergency response times.

The agency has investigated a 2010 natural gas explosion and fire in San Bruno, Calif., that destroyed 38 homes and killed eight people, finding that Pacific Gas & Electric, which operated the pipeline, seriously mishandled the situation.

It took 95 minutes to stop the flow of gas. The first three PG&E employees to arrive on the scene weren’t qualified to operate shutoff valves, and a request to use a remotely controlled shutoff valve, which is often used on large lines, was rejected because it would have affected too many customers.

Jim Hall, a former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, became an outside adviser to PG&E to help fix safety problems. He said there are several problems, including a patchwork of federal and state regulators and a lack of funds. But a central issue is an industry that hasn’t taken safety seriously enough.

“The safety culture in pipelines leaves a lot to be desired,” he said.

The Star’s Lynn Horsley contributed to this report. To reach Mike Hendricks, call 816-234-4738 or send email to mhendricks@kcstar.com. To reach Steve Everly, call 816-234-4455 or send email to severly@kcstar.com.

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