$400,000 fine recommended
OLYMPIA, Wash. – The Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC) today issued a complaint against Puget Sound Energy (PSE) alleging the utility violated certain gas-safety rules when it responded to reported gas leaks in a north Seattle neighborhood that later destroyed a house and injured two people.
After conducting a thorough investigation of the Sept. 26, 2011 incident, UTC pipeline safety engineers identified the most likely cause of the explosion was natural gas leaking from a PSE service pipe located outside the Pinehurst home. The complaint contains a staff recommendation a $400,000 fine be levied against the company for failure to follow natural gas leak survey rules.
The company has 20 calendar days to file a response. The three-member commission will set a schedule for hearing the complaint to consider whether to impose a penalty and, if so, at what amount. The company is not allowed to pass any penalty costs to customers through rates.
In an investigation report on the incident issued Dec. 26, 2012, UTC pipeline safety staff said the natural gas leaking from the pipe likely migrated into the crawlspace, eventually igniting and causing the explosion and fire that destroyed a house and resulted in injuries to the homeowners. The explosion also caused property damage to surrounding homes in the area.
According to the report, a downed power line that fell the day before the explosion energized a metal fence post, an abandoned buried metal-water pipe and finally, PSE’s gas-distribution piping. The leak that led to the explosion was attributed to “electrical arcing,” which is a powerful jolt of stray electricity that energized PSE’s gas piping creating a hole in the gas service pipe.
On the Sunday before the explosion, PSE gas workers found leaks at three locations, but did not find the leak that caused the explosion until late Monday, Sept. 26, 2011. The house had exploded around 6 a.m. that day and the two occupants were hospitalized, one with severe burns. Gas workers continued the next day to check pipes within a two-mile radius of the house that exploded. After the hole was found in the pipe, the gas company expanded the leak survey to a five-mile radius.
While the company promptly responded to odor reports and conducted a leak survey in the area, the investigation revealed it failed to survey all the gas lines and mains located in the area, including the service line to the home that exploded and the gas main located in and under the adjoining cul-de-sac.
Puget Sound Energy supplies natural gas to 785,000 customers, primarily in the Puget Sound area of Washington. The UTC sets the natural gas rates for PSE’s residential, business and industrial customers.
The UTC monitors natural gas pipeline safety regulations on Puget Sound Energy’s 12,000 miles of natural-gas distribution system in Washington. The commission has the authority to levy fines against pipeline operators found out of compliance. The UTC’s pipeline safety program performs inspections regularly on the state’s 31 pipeline operators.