State fines Fresno County for gas pipeline explosion

Pacific Gas & Electric Co. released this photo of the area where the natural gas line was ruptured on Friday, April 17.
Pacific Gas & Electric Co. released this photo of the area where the natural gas line was ruptured on Friday, April 17. Courtesy of Pacific Gas & Electric Co.

Fresno County is being fined more than $100,000 by the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration for its role in the April 17 gas line explosion that killed a Fresno County Jail inmate worker and injured 12 others.

The state worker-safety agency says the county failed to outline the hazard presented by an underground line at the work site.

The county disagrees with the state’s violation notice and is appealing the fines, said Paul Nerland, Fresno County’s interim director of personnel services.

Cal_OSHA’s report says a county worker severed the 12-inch Pacific Gas and Electric Co. gas line, leading to an explosion that shot flames 150 feet into the air and threw the worker from his front loader. Nearby workers at the Fresno County Sheriff’s Foundation shooting range were burned and one died from injuries caused by the explosion.

The front-end loader was being operated by a Fresno County public works employee on a road formed over a berm that sat above the shooting range, near Highway 99 and the San Joaquin River.

The Cal-OSHA report describes the work being done on the site as “re-establishing and widening an existing access road which had eroded and building up access ramps on the east and west side of the access road.”

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 if there were underground utilities in the project’s vicinity. That fine was $1,125.

Among the serious violations, the state 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.

$101,125Cal-OSHA’s proposed fine against Fresno County

All the violations have been corrected, state documents say.

Denny Boyles, a PG&E spokesman, said the utility’s “primary focus remains on the safe operation of our gas pipeline system and educating the public about the importance of digging safely.”

A 260-page report prepared by Exponent, a consulting firm for the California Public Utilities Commission, said in July that 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 Exponent report adds: “The significant gouging, scraping and deformation present at the rupture location could only have been caused by contact with the front-loader bucket.”

The report was not the final word on the PUC’s investigation before fault is determined, agency officials said.

In its report, Exponent ruled out the possibility of a bullet striking the gas line and causing the 19-inch fracture that triggered the blast. It also said that “the cause of the rupture cannot be attributed to inadequate material properties or manufacturing defects.”

An employee performing excavation work with a front loader at the job site damaged an existing ... 12 inch natural gas line.

Cal-OSHA notice of violation for April 17 explosion

The report says dirt covering the gas line measured to nearly 4 feet except where it was punctured. There, the report says the “pipe was found to have minimal depth of cover at the strike location on the uphill side of the dirt road cut into the hillside.”

The pipe was 53 years old, but the report says it “did not exhibit signs of embrittlement, brittle fracture or progressive cracking.”

PG&E crews conducted ground and aerial surveys in the days and weeks before the explosion and found no pipeline leaks. The pipeline also was surveyed in 2013 and was covered then in 40 inches of dirt, PG&E officials said.

Company officials said the pipeline was clearly marked and had been deemed safe in surveys before the blast.

Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims said the crew was building up berms and doing other maintenance at the firing range. Deputies witnessed the front-loader building up berms just before the explosion. Mims said the driver had not been digging but was smoothing out dirt, and the statement of the driver’s family, released through a Bay Area lawyer, said he “followed the instructions of his employer during his work day, which involved redistributing soil with no excavation.”

Since the explosion, lawsuits have been filed by workers against Pacific Gas & Electric and Fresno County. The utility and county also have sued each other.

Marc Benjamin: 559-441-6166, @beebenjamin