Fresno County says gas line was surveyed before explosion

By Marc Benjamin

Fresno County’s appeal of fines connected to an April gas line explosion says the county didn’t violate state excavation rules for work at the Fresno County Sheriff’s Foundation for Public Safety shooting range.

The county’s appeal lawyer, David M. Overstreet IV, said “there was no digging in the ground” at the site on April 17, the day of accident.

Last month, Fresno County was fined $101,125 for five violations 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 Cal-OSHA Appeals Board has received the county’s appeal forms. No date has been set for a hearing.

Cal-OSHA’s report says the county equipment operator severed the 12-inch Pacific Gas & Electric Co. gas line, leading to an explosion that shot flames 150 feet into the air and threw the worker from his front loader. The employee was on a road formed over a berm that sits 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.”

In the 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.

Overstreet pointed out that dirt was added to the berm, which doubled the elevation of the site by 1 foot. He said topographic maps provided by a company that filed a report paid for by PG&E proved “there were additions to the berm, not the removal of earth.”

Adding dirt to the berm, Overstreet said in the appeal, “cannot be considered excavation because the earth below the surface of the berm road was not displaced.”

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

Among the serious violations cited by Cal-OSHA was that 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 appeal contends that county officials did survey the site before work started.

“County employees walked the entire property to assess the work that was to be completed and to specify the scope of work to be performed,” Overstreet’s appeal said. “It was also during the walk-through that ‘digging’ was discussed and it was agreed that no digging would occur. In fact, the scope of the work was to the contrary. The loader operator was to build up the berm 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.

Calling the “dig-alert” phone line was immaterial, Overstreet said, because the state Government Code section is “not written in a way that would make a reader understand that any earth displacement on or above the surface of the earth would require a call to the regional notification center.”

The county also was fined for failing to mark up the excavation site and for not checking the dig-alert phone line about the existence of the gas line. Other violations were related to site work being done without determining the existence of the pipeline.

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

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.

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.

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