February 6, 2014

MGE failed to follow safety rules on day of fatal JJ’s explosion, Missouri regulator says

Chief among the state’s criticisms: MGE workers waited too long before checking to see if gas levels from a leaking pipe had reached unsafe levels inside the popular dining place west of the Country Club Plaza. The Feb. 19, 2013, explosion killed one person, injured 15 and destroyed the building.

State utility regulators filed a complaint Thursday against Missouri Gas Energy alleging the company’s employees failed to follow safety procedures in the minutes leading up to last year’s fatal explosion at JJ’s restaurant.

The Feb. 19, 2013, explosion killed one person, injured 15 and destroyed the building.

Chief among the state’s criticisms: MGE workers waited too long before checking to see if gas levels from a leaking pipe had reached unsafe levels inside the popular dining place west of the Country Club Plaza.

Also, they failed to ensure that occupants of the restaurant evacuate the building when told to do so, even though gas levels were three to four times the level at which evacuations are deemed necessary by the company’s own emergency plan, the report said.

Staff of the Missouri Public Service Commission filed the two-count complaint against MGE based on a 125-page gas incident report also released Thursday that had been in the works since the day of the explosion.

The complaint asks that the commission have its general counsel seek penalties in state circuit court. The amount of those potential penalties would depend on the number of violations determined by the court.

Missouri Gas Energy responded to the complaint and report with a prepared statement that read in part:

“The safety of our customers, employees and community is and always has been our number one priority. Missouri Public Service Commission (PSC) rules prevent Missouri Gas Energy (MGE) from commenting in significant detail on the PSC staff’s report. However, MGE disagrees with the alleged violations and will vigorously challenge them in the formal legal process. There are important facts related to the incident that were not included.”

The commission staff report was the last and most complete of the four investigative reports issued since the explosion.

Previously, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited Heartland Midwest LLC, the Olathe-based drilling contractor that accidentally punctured the gas line, for violating safety rules.

Heartland has contested the five citations and proposed penalties totaling $161,000.

OSHA said Heartland didn’t use sufficient caution when boring a hole for Time Warner Cable. But the public service commission report largely absolved the company of blame, saying incorrect utility markings led the company to put its drill at the same depth as the gas line, rupturing it.

The Kansas City police and fire departments previously issued separate reports that did not assess blame.

The Missouri Public Service Commission staff report adds far more detail, lists several failings on the part of Missouri Gas Energy personnel that day, and suggests that the commission order the utility to tighten its safety procedures.

Most pointed is the report’s criticism of MGE employees’ actions before the blast. Some 46 minutes passed between the time they arrived on the scene after the gas leak was reported to 911 and the explosion.

During that period, more than a half hour elapsed before a gas company employee checked gas levels inside the two buildings closest to the gas leak in the alley between them: JJ’s at 910 W. 48th St., and House of Elan at 906 W. 48th.

When the readings showed the air was unsafe, gas workers told the occupants to evacuate, the report said.

But several JJ’s employees were still inside the restaurant when gas fumes ignited, possibly due to a pilot light, although the commission staff could not be certain of the ignition source.

Asked why they didn’t leave when told told to evacuate, restaurant workers cited the demeanor of utility workers.

“The general consensus of this group of individuals was that the MGE personnel did not project any sense of urgency to exit the building,” the report said.

In the statement it released Thursday, MGE defended the manner in which its personnel performed that day.

“Upon learning an MGE gas line was damaged by a cable contractor,” the company said, “MGE promptly responded and followed well-established company and industry procedures.

“The moment the MGE responder arrived, his investigation began. He called for additional responders, investigated the source of the leak and developed a plan for containing it. MGE responders conducted tests and urged the evacuation of several buildings in the impacted area, including JJ’s.

“MGE responders urged JJ’s to evacuate on three separate occasions. While many individuals left, our employees cannot force anyone to evacuate.”

Commission staff said MGE violated the state’s gas safety rules by failing “to take immediate corrective action providing for public safety and protecting property.”

The first utility worker on the scene had two tools on his truck that could have been used to read gas levels inside the buildings, but the report found that neither was used that day.

When two of his co-workers took readings inside the restaurant more than 30 minutes later, the gas-to-air reading was at 3.5 to 4 percent. The company’s own policy calls for evacuating buildings when the reading hits 1 percent.

The staff report said even gas company workers should evacuate the area under such conditions when possible sources of ignition have not been eliminated.

MGE workers also were faulted for not coordinating with the Fire Department, which at the time had an informal policy of deferring to the gas company when leaks were reported.

The Fire Department has since changed that policy and now stays at the scene until the threat to public safety subsides. Also, the first truck responding to a gas leak is now supposed to have on board a device to measure gas levels in the air.

The complaint also recommends that the commission compel MGE to take several safety measures to prevent future accidents. Among them: Making certain that the Fire Department, police or other authorities able to order evacuations be on the scene during emergency situations.

Firefighters left the area that day about 45 minutes before the blast. A fire captain said the first Missouri Gas Energy employee to arrive said the pumper truck could leave because he had things “under control,” according to the report.

However, that MGE employee said he talked to no one from the Fire Department and saw no fire truck when he arrived, the report said.

The staff report does not fault Missouri Gas Energy for the method in which it attempted to stop the gas leak. Some experts have suggested the company should have shut off gas to the area with emergency shut-off valves.

But instead of doing that, the utility chose to dig up the street and crimped one end of the leaking pipe while closing off a single valve connected to the broken pipe.

The report said that shutting off the emergency valves would have cut off gas service to 2,990 meters, yet large volumes of gas within the pipes would have continued to escape from the leak and pose a safety risk.

Pinching off the pipe inconvenienced just 35 customers when it was finally accomplished at 8 p.m., two hours after the blast. The gas leak, which fed the fatal fire, might have been stopped before that, the report said, had gas company employees been able to turn off a valve at Ward Parkway and Belleview Avenue.

But the valve had been paved over.

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