Utilities and Transportation Commission’s Pipeline Safety finds Puget Sound Energy at fault for Greenwood explosion on March 9

by | Sep 20, 2016

The Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission’s department of Pipeline Safety released its report today on the cause of the March 9 natural gas explosion that destroyed three businesses in downtown Greenwood, damaged another 50, and injured nine firefighters. The UTC says Puget Sound Energy is at fault for failing to properly deactivate that gas line when it went out of service in 2004.

From the UTC report:

Staff finds that the immediate structural cause of the natural gas leak and explosion was external damage to a threaded coupling in the above-ground portion of the service line attached to the north-facing wall of the Mr. Gyros structure. The damage allowed natural gas to escape and to migrate into or under the Mr. Gyros structure, where it subsequently ignited.

Damage to the threaded coupling was likely caused by human activity. Post-incident interviews revealed that individuals used the narrow space between the Mr. Gyros and Neptune Coffee structures to store personal property. Interviewees acknowledged that they sometimes tripped on or bumped the service line. Staff did not determine whether the damage in this case was intentional.

Staff finds that the leak and explosion would not have occurred but for PSE’s improper abandonment of the service line in September 2004. Staff’s investigation revealed that the service line had not been “cut and capped” as documented by PSE’s contractor on Sept. 1, 2004. As a result of PSE’s improper abandonment, the service line remained operationally active until it was shut off after the explosion.

1. 49 C.F.R. § 192.727. PSE failed to abandon the service line in accordance with federal standards (one violation, maximum $200,000 penalty).

2. WAC 480-93-180 and 49 C.F.R. § 192.13(c). PSE failed to follow its internal pipeline deactivation plan (one violation, maximum $200,000 penalty).

3. WAC 480-93-188. PSE failed to perform annual leak surveys of the active service line (11 violations, maximum $2,000,000 penalty).

4. 49 C.F.R. § 192.481. PSE failed to perform atmospheric corrosion tests of the active service line at least once every three years (three violations, maximum $600,000 penalty).

5. 49 C.F.R. § 192. PSE failed to perform external corrosion tests of the active service line at least once every 10 years (one violation, maximum $200,000 penalty).

UTC staff is asking the Commission to fine Puget Sound Energy a total of $3,200,000.

You can see the Commission’s Staff Investigation Report and complaint against Puget Sound Energy here.

Update 12:40 p.m.: Michael Slattery of Slattery Properties, which owns that entire block of Greenwood Avenue North between North 84th and 85th streets where the explosion happened, was happy to hear the cause had finally been determined.

“It confirms our suspicion that Puget Sound Energy was at fault all along,” Slattery said. “We’re sorry we had to all go through this. It’s been a long process. It shouldn’t have taken that long to come up with the result. We’re hoping that Puget Sound Energy will stand up and take responsibility and offer an apology to us and the entire neighborhood. So far they’ve done nothing.”

Slattery spoke to me as he was heading to work with the painters at Flint Creek Cattle Company, on the corner of 85th and Greenwood. Flint Creek had been working to open the new restaurant when the damage from the explosion delayed those plans. The restaurant is now very close to opening.

Slattery will be at tonight’s Greenwood Community Council meeting at 7 p.m. at the Greenwood Library, 8016 Greenwood Ave. N., where he will give an update on his company’s plans for rebuilding the explosion site.

“We want to be part of the community,” he said. “We want to rebuild the community.”

Update: 12:45 p.m.: I’ve left messages for PSE spokesman Andy Wappler and will update this post when I hear back. PSE’s Twitter feed says they are reviewing the report.

Update 12:50 p.m.: Puget Sound Energy has posted this response on its website:

Our response to UTC Greenwood report

(9/20/16) The proposed fine from the state Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC) staff is disappointing and excessive.

All parties investigating the March incident, including the UTC and the Seattle Fire Department, agree: the natural gas system at the Greenwood site was damaged by unauthorized individuals in a space not intended for human activity, with the resulting gas leak causing the explosion and fire.

While we disagree with the UTC staff’s conclusions and recommended fine, we’re committed to the safety of our customers and the community and will continue to review the report as we prepare for final disposition of this investigation by the UTC commissioners.

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