State regulators on Thursday slapped Philadelphia Gas Works with a 334-count complaint alleging the utility failed to properly follow procedures in connection with a Jan. 18 explosion in Tacony that killed a 19-year-old PGW worker and injured five other employees.
The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission said PGW "failed to take required steps to minimize the danger of accidental ignition of gas" after its workers responded to a reported gas leak in the 6900 block of Torresdale Avenue.
The PUC says it is seeking the maximum fine of $500,000 against the utility.
The complaint says that PGW failed to shut off gas mains and electricity to the neighborhood in violation of its own policies. Fire investigators said the blast was triggered when built-up gas was sparked by the electronic pilot light of a furnace.
The explosion killed Mark Keeley, a PGW employee with less than one year's experience, as he was attempting to ventilate gas built up in the basement of a two-story rowhouse.
The PUC said Keeley, the son of a PGW employee, "was not trained in emergency response, was not qualified to perform the covered task of ventilation and was not being directly supervised for that task at the time of the explosion."
The blast destroyed the rowhouse, which contained a chiropractic clinic and two apartments. It flattened cars, shattered windows for blocks, and burned for two hours before being brought under control.
Five other utility workers were injured, three critically.
Many of the complaints in the 22-page document are multiple violations.
For instance, the PUC says that PGW failed to fix a faulty gas main valve it discovered six months earlier, and it was cited 172 times for each day the valve was inoperable. The valve was not implicated in the explosion, but emergency workers struggled to cut off the gas supply to the blaze after the explosion.
The PUC cited the utility 70 times for failing to conduct postaccident drug testing and postaccident alcohol testing for each of the 35 PGW employees who were on site, which "could not be completely discounted as a contributing factor to the incident."
PGW would face a penalty of $3.3 million for all 334 counts if they were filed individually, but state law limits the penalties for a single incident to $500,000.
According to state law, the utility is not allowed to recover any fines it pays from customers through rates. But PGW is a city-owned utility, so that would mean its shareholders - the Philadelphia city government - would be on the hook for any penalties.
The city receives an $18 million annual payment from PGW, a dividend that had been suspended for several years while the utility underwent financial reorganization and was only restored this year.
Spokesman Barry O'Sullivan said PGW was unable to immediately respond to the specific PUC findings.
"Currently we are reviewing the content of the report, which is the PUC's interpretation of the events of January 18, 2011 following its investigation," he said in an e-mail. "We look forward to collaborating with the PUC to respond to the various findings in the report."
O'Sullivan said the utility was "very proud of the quality of work and commitment to safety and excellence that all of our employees demonstrate on a daily basis."
PGW has 20 days to formally respond to the complaint. Jennifer Kocher, the PUC's spokeswoman, said that no utility in memory had been fined the full $500,000 penalty.
The commission's carefully worded complaint does not explicitly say PGW's failures caused the explosion.
Nor does it attempt to identify the root cause of the accident - a leaky cast-iron gas main. More than half of PGW's underground pipes that deliver gas to homes and businesses are aging cast-iron mains.
But blame could be implied by some of the alleged violations - the failure "to comply with its emergency procedures that require actions be directed towards protecting people first and then property."
For instance, the explosion happened about an hour after PGW workers first arrived on the scene, and Philadelphia police and firefighters had already evacuated nearby buildings. But more than a half-hour elapsed after the blast before permission was granted to close the valves that would have isolated the leak.
Though it is not included in the complaint, investigators believe the action of ventilating the building may have contributed to the disaster by drawing winter air into the building, causing the thermostat to call upon more heat from the furnace, triggering the heater to kick on.
The PUC said PGW failed to maintain adequate inspection reports of the gas main that leaked and failures to communicate.
The PUC alleged that PGW failed to comply with its own emergency procedures by allowing workers to enter the building with elevated levels of natural gas. It said PGW employees put themselves in danger by remaining in the building to ventilate the gas after detecting near-explosive levels.
The PUC made 18 recommendations to PGW to revise procedures and to retrain and requalify employees on emergency procedures and responses.
The PGW explosion was among several natural gas pipeline blasts in short succession that drew the attention of federal and state investigators.
In September 2010, eight people died after a high-pressure Pacific Gas & Electric Co. transmission line exploded in San Bruno, Calif. And a few weeks after the PGW accident, five people died when a UGI Utilities' system distribution line exploded in Allentown.
That Feb. 9 incident is still under investigation, said the PUC's Kocher.
The PUC's complaint against Philadelphia
Gas Works provides
the following account
of the events of Jan. 18.
7:19 p.m. A call is received by 911 about
a strong odor of gas
in the 6900 block of Torresdale Avenue.
7:21 p.m. Philadelphia Fire and Police Departments respond and begin evacuations, calling PGW three minutes later.
7:38 and 7:40 p.m. Two PGW field technicians arrive
on the scene.
8 p.m. The first supervisor to arrive suspects a high-pressure gas-main failure and asks for
help from PGW's pressure force department.
8:22 p.m. Another supervisor calls for immediate pressure reduction.
8:33 p.m. PGW crew member Mark Keeley, 19, arrives and starts working on ventilating the gas.
6932 Torresdale Ave. explodes, killing Keeley, who was not qualified for emergency response.
9:13 p.m. Permission is granted to close the valves that would have isolated the leak.
- Harold BrubakerEndText