The state’s Public Utility Commission last week charged the Philadelphia Gas Works violated state and federal regulations more than 300 times in the way its employees handled a mid-January gas leak in Tacony that led to a fatal explosion.
PGW employee Mark Keeley, 19, of Fox Chase, on the job just four months, was killed in the Jan. 18 blast at 6932 Torresdale Ave.
The building itself had been evacuated by city firefighters who arrived at the scene to investigate strong gas odors at 7:21 p.m., just moments before PGW employees got there.
Four other utility workers and a fireman were injured in a blast 74 minutes later. The Philadelphia Fire Department in March determined the explosion was caused by a furnace turning on in the basement, which ignited natural gas that had leaked out of a high-pressure main.
PGW workers were in the process of trying to ventilate the basement when the explosion occurred at 8:35 p.m.
“We alleged 334 violations,” PUC spokeswoman Jennifer Kocher said Friday.
In a 24-page complaint, the PUC lists missteps taken before and after the explosion. Chief among them are:
• PGW didn’t grant permission to close valves to isolate the leak until 51 minutes after a supervisor had called for pressure reduction.
• “PGW failed to take the required steps to minimize the danger of accidental ignition of gas in an area where the presence of gas constituted a hazard of fire or explosion.”
• “PGW at no time requested that PECO Energy shut off electric power to 6932 Torresdale Avenue in order to eliminate all sources of ignition.” Later in the complaint, the PUC stated, PGW “failed to reasonably protect the public from danger.”
• Keeley, who died of blunt impact and thermal injuries, ldquo;was not trained in emergency response, was not qualified to perform the covered task of ventilation and was not being directly supervised for that task at the time of the explosion.”
• One of the valves that PGW employees tried to close to cut off gas to the leak site could not be operated. That valve was found to be inoperable on July 30, 2010, five and a half months before the leak and explosion. An inspection report in 2010 “noted the valve was not suitable for pressure reduction.” More than a month after the explosion, the valve still was not operating, the PUC complaint stated.
• PGW failed to conduct post-accident drug testing for 35 employees who were at the scene.
Kocher said the PUC wants $500,000 in fines, but said the case “is very much in its infancy.”
Besides fines, the PUC wants the gas company to make changes in how its crews are trained and protected, and to provide written procedures for dealing with emergencies. The PUC also is demanding the utility identify all non-operable emergency valves and provide a schedule to make those valves operable.
Barry O’Sullivan, a PGW spokesman, said no employees have been fired or disciplined in connection to the Tacony explosion. He stressed that the utility’s employees are dedicated to public safety.
The PUC has not formally served PGW with its complaint and the utility will respond to it when the complaint is served, O’Sullivan added.
PGW has 20 days to respond to the complaint by the PUC’s prosecutorial staff. The final determination of the case could take a year or more, said Kocher.
A chiropractic office and apartments were located above 6932 Torresdale before the explosion and subsequent two-hour fire. Windows were blown out and structural damage occurred along Torresdale Avenue from the blast point at Disston Street. Several cars also were destroyed. Nearby residents who had been evacuated by firefighters were kept away until midnight.
The subsequent investigations and cleanup took weeks, and local business owners said they suffered big losses. The chiropractor’s office and a few other businesses never came back.
O’Sullivan said Friday he was not aware of any outstanding suits filed in connection to the explosion. ••
Reporter John Loftus can be reached at 215-354-3110 or firstname.lastname@example.org