A news blog for Seattle's Phinney Ridge and Greenwood neighborhoods


Utilities and Transportation Commission fines Puget Sound Energy a record $2.75 million for 2016 Greenwood gas explosion

June 19th, 2017 by Doree

The Washington State Utilities and Transportation Commission today approved a settlement agreement that imposes the highest penalty ever on Puget Sound Energy for the 2016 Greenwood gas explosion that leveled three businesses and damaged another 50.

The main penalty is $1.5 million, with another $1.25 million in penalties if PSE doesn’t complete a comprehensive gas pipeline inspection and remediation program by agreed upon deadlines.

In September, the UTC found PSE at fault for the explosion, saying the utility’s contractor had improperly deactivated that gas line, which was then damaged by people who used the tiny space between two buildings to store their belongings and subsequently damaged the pipe. Nine firefighters were injured in the explosion.

According to today’s settlement agreement:

The complaint alleged five violations related to improper deactivation of a pipeline and failure to perform periodic gas leak surveys and corrosion tests as required by pipeline safety regulations. PSE did not contest the five violations.

The compliance program requires PSE to identify, inspect, and remediate more than 40,000 retired service lines, categorized as follows:

  • Group 1: Within 18 months, complete initial inspections on all 3,060 service lines retired by PSE’s contractor between 2000-2010 located in business districts.
  • Group 2: Within 24 months, complete initial inspections on a sample of 6,578 service lines for the 10,907 locations retired by PSE’s contractor between 2000-2010 that serve high occupancy structures, prioritizing schools, public buildings, and hospitals.
  • Group 3: Within 36 months complete initial inspections on a sample of 3,263 service lines for the 15,131 locations retired prior to 2000 that may have served high occupancy structures, prioritizing schools, public buildings, and hospitals.
  • Group 4: Within 36 months complete initial inspections on a sample of 3,069 service lines for the 11,691 locations retired after 2010 that may have served high occupancy structures, prioritizing schools, public buildings, and hospitals.

If the company discovers an active gas line in the sample from Groups 2-4, PSE must inspect all locations within that group and file an amended compliance plan with the commission.

PSE also agrees to evaluate active, above-ground service pipes as part of their regular inspection process with an enhanced focus on pipes susceptible to external damage, including tampering or vandalism.

The settlement also requires PSE to review its standards and practices related to deactivating service lines and implement employee training on any changes.

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Seattle Times: Greenwood firefighter suing PSE over injuries from March 2016 natural gas explosion

May 16th, 2017 by Doree

The Seattle Times reports that Firefighter Jeff Markoff, one of nine firefighters injured in the massive natural gas explosion that destroyed three businesses and damaged another 50 in downtown Greenwood on March 9, 2016, is suing Puget Sound Energy for lingering health issues related to the blast.

In September, the state Utilities and Transportation Commission’s Department of Pipeline Safety released a report saying PSE’s contractor failed to properly decommission that gas line in 2004, and proposed a fine of $3.2 million.

In March, PSE and UTC proposed a settlement of $1.5 million. UTC commissioners discussed the settlement at a meeting yesterday in Olympia, but likely won’t make a decision until this summer.

PSE is now in the process of inspecting 40,000 retired natural gas service lines to make sure they were properly decommissioned.

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Puget Sound Energy talking natural gas safety with businesses, residents today, on 1-year anniversary of explosion

March 9th, 2017 by Doree

Two dozen Puget Sound Energy employees are talking about natural gas safety with Greenwood businesses and residents today on the one-year anniversary of the natural gas explosion that destroyed three businesses and damaged 50 more.

PSE has an information table set up inside the Greenwood Fred Meyer on NW 85th Street, and a tent in the parking lot at the corner of NW 85th Street and 1st Avenue NW, where employees are staging as they go out into the neighborhood.

PSE Vice President of Corporate Affairs Andy Wappler (in photo above, second from right) told me at 1 p.m. today that PSE employees had gone to every business within about a two-block radius of the intersection of NW 85th Street and Greenwood Avenue North.

Starting at about 2 p.m., employees planned to fan out in teams of two to knock on residents’ doors within about a four-block radius, a total of about 400 homes. Employees will be wearing bright yellow/green jackets with the PSE logo.

PSE’s website has information on what to do if you think you detect a gas leak in your home or business.

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Businesses affected by last year’s natural gas explosion call Puget Sound Energy negligent and call for the utility to accept responsibility

January 25th, 2017 by Doree

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.

Eleni Ponirakis, owner of Kouzina/Zoey Catering, tears up as she announces her business will close after continuing insurance problems after being damaged in the March 9, 2016, natural gas explosion. She is surrounded by other business owners affected by the blast.

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.

Part of the ceiling is falling down and black mold grows on the back wall of Kouzina/Zoey Catering, which was damaged in the March 9, 2016, natural gas explosion. Owner Eleni Ponirakis is at right.

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.

Puget Sound Energy did not immediately respond to a request for comment on today’s press conference.

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.”

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Investigators sifting through debris to determine cause of Greenwood explosion

March 11th, 2016 by Doree

A large investigative team is sifting through debris today at the site of what used to be three well-known Greenwood businesses before they were destroyed by a natural gas explosion early Wednesday morning.

Half a dozen investigators in white hazmat suits work at right, while about a dozen firefighters confer in back at left.

Half a dozen investigators in white hazmat suits work in the center and at right, while about a dozen firefighters confer in back at left.

Andy Wappler, Vice President of Corporate Affairs for Puget Sound Energy, told me this morning at the explosion site that the investigation will look at three main things: The condition of the gas system, which includes everything from the gas line in the street to the condition of the meter set at the building; natural gas appliances inside the building, such as the furnace and water heater; and whether something could have happened to the gas system by a third party. For that, they’ll look at recent service calls in the area and maintenance records.

Investigators today are looking at each individual piece of debris to determine if it’s relevant. If not, it will be set aside and eventually carted away. Anything that might be relevant, such as a piece of gas line, the meter, water heater and furnace, “That’s what they’re going through the rubble trying to find,” Wappler said. “That is going to take a while.”

When they do find pieces of gas pipe, they’ll pump them up with pressurized air to determine if there’s a leak or weak spot, and look for any corrosion or impact to the pipe.

The explosion site as seen from North 84th Street.

The explosion site and investigative equipment as seen from North 84th Street.

Wappler said investigators have already interviewed witnesses, including people who were still at The Angry Beaver tavern directly across the street at the time of the explosion, all firefighters at the scene, and transients who were in the area.

He said some people are worried that they don’t know how to shut off the gas to their house if they smell a leak, but he said, “In most cases you don’t want to. You want to leave and then call us. And leave without touching a light switch or using the phone. Leave, get a safe distance away and then call.”

Puget Sound Energy’s website has a page describing how to know if you have a natural gas leak and what to do.

As for how long this investigation might take, Wappler said, “It will take us as long as it takes to get it right.”

While our neighborhood was lucky that no one was seriously injured or killed, that doesn’t minimize its impact compared to other natural gas explosions.

“The reality is these are all significant. They’re never small,” Wappler said. “There are no insignificant gas explosions.”

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Gas line break at Palatine and 67th

April 16th, 2011 by Doree

Firefighters and the gas company were called to a gas line break at a house at 6723 Palatine Ave. N. this afternoon. From tipster Mike V:

When homeowner Frank Rebhan grabbed a gas line on the side of his house to steady himself, it tipped the meter, and when he tried to straighten it…the line broke. Fire trucks are still in the street as I send this. (Frank’s house was the one featured on the Home and Garden Network several years ago when he moved it to Palatine from a Phinney address.)

Thanks to Silver and Mike for the tips, and Mike for the photo!

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