By Brian C. Dever, Esq.
Over the last week, the newspapers have been filled with the details of a natural gas explosion in Springfield, Massachusetts. Less than three years ago, a power plant exploded in Connecticut due to improper procedures in testing gas lines resulting in multiple injuries and six deaths. As many of you may be aware, natural gas is a fuel commonly used for heating and cooking. In its natural state it is odorless but gas companies put an odor into the gas to give it its tell tale odor. Most gas lines are underground and therefore are subject to corrosion and consequently leakage. Over the years, the gas company, in an effort to minimize that problem, has created a process where they can insert plastic lines into the old pipe to further seal the line. However, through many different processes, gas leaks can occur.
The most common cause for disruption of a gas line is the accidental or intentional digging up of the gas line. The gas utilities and the cities maintain a mapping of gas lines throughout the city. They also have testing methods from the surface level to determine where existing lines are located. Whenever digging in the ground occurs, all contractors are required to call 1-800-Dig-Safe. Dig Safe then has a prescribed time in which to respond and mark out the line. However, Dig Safe is essentially a clearing house for that phone call directing the individual utility [gas, electric, water] to mark their lines. In the process, when that utility marks out that line, they have a prescribed time in which to do so. In addition, their marked lines can have as much as eighteen inches of variance from the center marking. Consequently, most contractors, when their digging near a known utility, know the prescribed depth of that particular line as required by law and have a rough approximation of where that utility line is. As they get closer, most contractors will dig by shovel as opposed by backhoe.
Often times, in gas explosion cases, it is a contractor digging up the utility line using a backhoe in close proximity to the line that causes the disruption of the line and subsequent explosion. Liability for the damage and tragedy caused by such carelessness is clear.
In addition, gas utilities often rely in part upon reports from their consumer lines as to whether or not people smell gas. The utility then logs those complaints and sends out investigators with special trucks and special equipment to comb through those areas to respond to reports of gas leaks.
In the Springfield case, there are disputed accounts as to when gas odor was first detected. There is an unattributed account that for a period of months gas odor was being smelled in the building in question. However, the utility has responded that it was only in the hour or so before the accident that they first got a report of a gas leak. It has been reported that thereafter, the utility sent out a representative to probe for the gas leak and that representative in turn accidentally punctured a high pressure gas line at the foundation of the building.
While the investigation into this Springfield gas explosion continues, it is clear that Columbia Gas and its efforts to investigate the leak in fact caused the explosion.
As this investigation into Springfield continues, investigators and lawyers will get to the practical causes of this accident. However, preventing these accidents and most importantly preventing a tragic loss of life or injury is ultimately the goal of all. What we should all know is that if you smell gas in your home, get your family out of the home immediately and leave the doors open when you leave. Do not wait to make calls from within the house to the police. Do not turn on any electrical circuits i.e. lights, as the electrical circuit can in fact trigger the gas explosion if enough gas is present. Having handled many [unfortunately too many] gas explosion cases, be aware and alert to work on gas lines near your homes or work or any re-installation of gas connections into your home. In those cases be hyper-vigilant to the smell of gas.