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Bad Markings Blamed in PA Gas Blast

Thursday, November 3, 2011

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Inaccurate gas-line location markings are suspected in the explosion of a line that ruptured this week when struck by a construction crew in the center of a Pennsylvania college town, officials say.

“It was like a bomb going off,” a fire official said.

Remarkably, no one was injured in Monday morning’s blast, which destroyed a building that housed a business and apartments at an intersection in Millersville, PA, near Millersville University.

Erroneous line location markings by the utility company are believed to have led to the accident.

About 100 homes and businesses were evacuated—on Monday and again on Tuesday—as officials sought to head off a second explosion from residual gas.

“There probably was a fireball in the basement,” local fire commissioner Duane Hagelgans told Lancaster Newspapers. “There was a shock wave that blew out the wall and lifted up the roof. Luckily, it didn’t catch fire.”

Fire officials believe a pilot light from a hot water heater sparked the explosion after the main broke.

Utility Concedes Error

A spokesman for UGI Utilities Inc., which owns the line, initially blamed Allentown-based contractor Focus Fiber Solutions for striking the eight-inch natural-gas main, saying the company had failed to use “prudent excavation techniques.”

UGI spokesman Michael Fessler said that the utility’s line-location markings for the contractor were in “the proper vicinity,” if not “dead on.”

On Tuesday, however, Fessler told reporters that utility officials were “disappointed” to learn that their own crews had marked lines outside the mandated 18-inch tolerance zone, which is measured from the edge of the pipe in each direction.

‘Close Enough’

However, Fessler declined to blame the utility, telling reporters: “We’re focused on finding out how this happened. There are many factors that could have caused this; we’re going to wait to see what the investigation reveals.”

UGI told that there were several reasons why the gas-line markings could have been off, including human error, street conditions changing over time, or other utilities sharing the underground space.

Fessler told Lancaster Newspapers that he was not sure how far off the markings were, but that they were “close enough” to the gas line that workers would have realized the discrepancy, if they had followed protocol.

A UGI statement suggested the same thing, saying: “Contractors who perform digging and/or boring near underground facilities are also responsible for taking precautions and using best practices to protect underground facilities.

“For example, when utilizing underground boring equipment, contractors are required to use ‘spotting holes’ to confirm the location of underground utility lines.”

Said Fessler: “At this point, though, it’s not about blame; it’s about finding out how this happened.”

Multiple Investigations

UGI Utilities serves 630,000 customers in Pennsylvania and Maryland. In February, a natural-gas line owned by UGI exploded in Allentown, PA, killing five people in two families and flattening homes. That blast remains under investigation.

The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission is investigating the utility’s role in Monday’s accident, while the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry are looking into the roles of subcontractors Focus Fiber and Colorado-based Zayo Bandwidth.

FFS provides telecommunications infrastructure and engineering services. Dean Pate, the company’s Director-OSP Construction, declined Thursday to comment, except to note UGI’s statement that “their markings were outside of the 18” tolerance zone allowed by law.”

Zayo, a provider of high-bandwidth infrastructure, also declined to comment, pending the outcome of the investigation.

UGI did not respond to a request for comment.

‘Tons and Tons of Gas’

Monday’s blast imperiled the area for several days. Hagelgans said the initial blast released “tons and tons” of gas, which officials worked hard to dissipate.

Fire officials opened manholes in the area to ventilate the gas from under the street, but the manhole closest to the explosion had been paved over, leading to a delicate, hazardous excavation project to remove it, Lancaster Newspapers reported.

“We still have gas under the street,” Hagelgans told the paper a day after the explosion. “We have gas three blocks up. … There could be pockets of gas anywhere.”

Waiting for Answers

On Thursday, UGI said it would continue to monitor the area for residual gas, and to vent and purge any gas “as needed.” The utility also said it would continue to investigate.

Meanwhile, local residents await answers that will likely take months.

“There’s a myriad of infrastructure that none of us see on a daily basis that they have to work their way through with this equipment,” Ed Arnold, Millersville Borough Manager, told WGAL-TV.

“I wasn’t exactly 100% sold on the idea of how this installation works, and of course you can Monday-morning-quarterback with what happened.

“Nevertheless, I’ll be anxious to see what comes out of the investigative work.”


Tagged categories: Contractors; Explosions; Health and safety; Pipeline; Roads/Highways

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