The state Public Utilities Commission has determined Fresno County was responsible for an April pipeline explosion at the Fresno County Sheriff’s Foundation shooting range in northwest Fresno.
The explosion killed one man and injured 13 others, most of them from the Fresno County Jail who were working on the shooting range.
The state PUC, which released the report Monday afternoon, said the explosion was caused by the driver of a front loader who struck the gas pipeline that was buried in the path where he was digging into the side of a hill. The driver, who was among the injured, was building up the berm above the shooting range when the pipeline was struck.
The 27-page commission report found no wrongdoing on the part of Pacific Gas & Electric Co., which owns the pipeline. Damage to the gas line and lost gas was about $1.95 million, the report said.
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In addition to indicating the county worker was the cause of the explosion, the state said the county failed to call 811 to find out whether there were pipelines in the area and suggested that the county should have considered professional assistance for the berm work.
The Public Utilities Commission included many previous findings in an investigation by Exponent, which was released in July. It found that PG&E had not violated laws or regulations that might have contributed to the accident. Exponent was hired by the PUC to analyze the explosion.
The report also found the front loader driver responsible for the explosion.
The Public Utilities Commission’s “Safety and Enforcement Division found no evidence to suggest that PG&E did not meet the requirement for minimum cover at the time of (pipeline) installation” in the early 1960s, the commission report said.
The 260-page Exponent report says the “PG&E line ruptured when it was struck by a front loader that was operating in the area at the time of the incident.”
The PUC repeated the Exponent report, saying: “The significant gouging, scraping and deformation present at the rupture location could only have been caused by contact with the front-loader bucket.”
Several of the inmates, along with the county and the county worker, have sued PG&E, claiming improper maintenance of the pipeline. The county has sued PG&E, and PG&E has sued the county, as has the Fresno Sheriff’s Foundation for Public Safety. Union Pacific Rail Road filed suit in the case because of damage done to its tracks next to the range.
In its report, Exponent ruled out the possibility of a bullet striking the pipeline and causing the 19-inch fracture that triggered the explosion.
“The front loader struck the pipe and punctured it, nearly instantaneously causing the rupture,” the Exponent report says. “The cause of the rupture cannot be attributed to inadequate material properties or manufacturing defects.”
The commission said that “corrosion to the pipeline was not a contributing factor to this incident.”
No digging was planned
The state report said that county officials admitted they didn’t call 811 to find out whether there was a gas line. The commission report outlined numerous occasions when PG&E had contacted the county to attend meetings about digging around pipelines and calling 811.
“All of them (county officials) indicated that since they believed no excavation was proposed, no USA ticket (the pipeline agency) was requested for the work performed at the shooting range,” the PUC report said.
In October, California’s Occupational Safety & Health Administration fined the county more than $100,000 for the pipeline incident.
The fines were citations for four serious violations and one general violation totaling $101,125. The four serious violations led to fines of $25,000 each. The general violation was failure to call the “dig-alert” 811 phone number to find out whether there were underground utilities in the project’s vicinity. That fine was $1,125.
Among the serious violations, the Cal-OSHA document said, the county “did not make a thorough survey of the conditions of the site to determine ... the predictable hazards to employees with respect to underground utilities, such as an existing natural gas line.”
The county also was fined for failing to mark up the excavation site and not seeking a positive response from the pipeline owner about the existence of the gas line. Other violations also were related to site work done without determining existence of the pipeline.
All the violations have been corrected, state documents said, but the county is appealing the fines.
In its appeal, the county claims that the types of violations – “serious, willful (and) repeat” were incorrect, that the penalty was unreasonable, and that worker safety rules were not violated.
Dan Cederborg, Fresno County counsel, said that the county “disagrees with the conclusion but cannot comment further due to the litigation.”
Sheriff’s officials said they wouldn’t respond to the report because of pending litigation.
State PUC officials do not have authority to fine the county. If PG&E had been found at fault, fines or other penalties could have been imposed, Christopher Chow, a public information officer for the commission said Monday.
Report speaks for itself
Denny Boyles, a PG&E spokesman, said the state report “speaks for itself. We want all our customers to know that calling 811 before you dig is absolutely critical.”
PG&E contends that not only was the pipeline buried deep in the ground, but that pipeline signs were ignored and no calls were made to the toll-free 811 line to check for pipelines before digging in the area.
PG&E officials said the Fresno pipeline was operating normally, with gas flowing at a pressure of 370 pounds per square inch, until just moments before the explosion when a drop in pressure was noted.
PG&E crews had done a ground survey of the pipeline on April 1 and an aerial survey the day before the explosion and found no leaks in the line.
PG&E also issued a report in July that said the gas pipeline was buried 4.7 feet in the ground as recently as the day before the loader struck it. Their report, by Washington State-based Golder Associates, followed up on the Exponent report.
The Golder report supported PG&E’s contention that the gas pipeline was buried in the soil. Golder Associates contends in its conclusion that damage to the pipeline occurred when the road was being extended by excavating at the same level as the pipeline.
The Golder report said that there appeared to be “a fresh pile of excavated material” at the site where the explosion occurred. Excavation struck the pipeline laterally from the side.
An aerial photograph shows “the pipeline alignment itself is well vegetated and undisturbed as late as April 16, 2015 as documented by an aerial photograph on that day,” the Golder report said.