Several business owners affected by last year’s natural gas explosion that destroyed two buildings, heavily damaged many others and sent nine firefighters to the hospital, are demanding that Puget Sound Energy accept responsibility and pay some kind of restitution.
The business owners gathered at Taproot Theatre, half a block from the explosion site, this morning for a press conference with Seattle City Councilmember Mike O’Brien.
The Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission’s department of Pipeline Safety announced in September that the explosion was caused by an improperly decommissioned gas line between two buildings, where a damaged threaded coupling above ground let natural gas accumulate until it was ignited. Pipeline Safety staff recommended a fine of up to $3.2 million. At the time PSE called the findings and proposed fine “disappointing and excessive.”
O’Brien said State Rep. Noel Frame, who lives in Greenwood, told him the state has scheduled another hearing with PSE in July.
Davey Oil, co-owner of G&O Family Cyclery, whose building was adjacent to the destroyed buildings and was too damaged to reoccupy, said he wants Puget Sound Energy to take responsibility and proactively check all its gas lines to make sure this doesn’t happen again – with deadly consequences.
“The blast only took two seconds to occur, but the real violence has been every day since,” Oil said. “Ten years prior (PSE) improperly decommissioned a gas pipe and they lost track of it. As a society, we need to know that our vital infrastructure is well secured, and is monitored for safety. We trust that someone has checked the brake lines on a speeding bus. We want to know that someone has checked the explosive gas lines that lead into our homes and our businesses. We have no choice but to have that trust.”
O’Brien said he’s spoken to PSE representatives several times, most recently yesterday to invite them to the press conference (the company did not send a representative), but that he believes the company is dragging its feet because it has the money and time to do so.
“We need to hold Puget Sound Energy accountable to make sure that every neighborhood is safe,” O’Brien said. “Some independent entity needs to watch over their shoulder to make sure that mistakes that happened here haven’t happened elsewhere.”
Neptune Coffee, Mr. Gyros and Greenwood Quick Stop were destroyed and have not reopened, although Mr. Gyros has locations in Ballard and Wallingford and regularly brings its food truck to the explosion site.
Meanwhile, other neighborhood business owners are still struggling to get insurance settlements, G&O has moved twice (first to a temporary location, now they’re about to open in a permanent location a block away), and Kouzina/Zoey Catering will be closing its doors for good in a week.
Kouzina owner Eleni Ponirakis said her insurance company paid her just $6,000 for the 10 days she was closed after the explosion, but refuses to pay relocation expenses. Her front door was unable to be used after the blast and she had to use the back door, but the kitchen was intact, so she continued to bake gluten-free foods for her catering customers, including Seattle Children’s, Evergreen Hospital and Victrola Coffee.
“We worked very hard to make sure our kitchen was properly set up for the gluten free…doing the right thing for our community, serving the right products,” Ponirakis said through tears. “When the gas explosion happened we didn’t think this is going to be the end for us. We were closed for almost two weeks. After that we were back and doing our wholesale and delivering to our customers.”
But after growing concerns about mold caused by explosion-related water damage in her back room, and unable to share an established kitchen because of cross contamination with gluten products, she concluded Kouzina had to shut down.
Nikki Visel, marketing director at Taproot Theatre, encouraged people to call or email PSE President/CEO Kimberly Harris and demand that PSE pay the businesses restitution.
“Please tell her that unlike malls and big box businesses, in small neighborhood ecosystems part of what’s exciting is that the businesses are often indigenous to the neighborhood and are very unique. They’re also fragile,” Visel said.
Taproot didn’t sustain heavy damage, but the frames on four sets of entry doors were bent, preventing them from closing and locking properly. Staff had to scramble to figure out a way to keep patrons – especially the hundreds of children in its acting programs – safe.
Chris Maykut, owner of Chaco Canyon Organic Café directly across the street, said his business was luckier than most, “even though the inside of our storefront was completely blown in, all the windows broken; everything looked like it had been put through a blender,” he said. “I’m really outraged, not for myself, but for Eleni, for Davey, for all the businesses that have been affected, destroyed, displaced. We have a billion dollar corporation…and all they’re doing is looking at a piece of paper in a big office saying, hey, if we stonewall these guys, if we don’t accept responsibility, if we don’t admit guilt, even though a nonpartisan body has found us to be liable for this, then we might be able to save some money.”
M. Louise McKay of the Bureau of Fearless Ideas, a nonprofit writing and tutoring center directly across the street from the blast site, relocated its programs to the Phinney Neighborhood Center for several months, but its store – Greenwood Space Travel Supply Co. – was closed for five months. The store’s profits support BFI’s programs, and BFI did not receive any kind of reimbursement for that. “We are disappointed by PSE’s inaction,” she said.
Oil encouraged people to support Greenwood’s small businesses.
“Puget Sound Energy’s negligence blew a hole in our dreams, but it doesn’t have to kill them,” Oil said.
Update 3:20 p.m.: I spoke with PSE Spokesperson Christina Donegan, who said, “We know it’s been really tough for the whole neighborhood and especially for small businesses. Ultimately we are waiting for the process to fully play out. It takes time. We understand it’s a difficult time in the interim. Ultimately we’re about doing what’s right for safety and the businesses.”
She said the Utilities and Transportation Commission has a settlement hearing scheduled for July 6. Meanwhile, UTC and PSE are working to learn from this explosion and how to ensure high safety standards, especially regarding decommissioned pipes.
“How do you accurately analyze abandoned pipe? That’s what we’re working on with regulators right now because they want to make sure it’s done right too,” Donegan said.
She said 10 businesses filed claims against PSE, and seven of those have been resolved. The other three claims are “more complex.” She couldn’t tell me which businesses filed claims, but she did say claims could be for things like physical damage or to cover lost payroll.
“Again, we care about the community. We’re there; we serve the community. Those businesses are our customers too. I understand they may not feel that way right now, but ultimately we want to do what’s right.”