PGW cited for actions in Tacony blast

A gas ex­plo­sion killed on PGW work­er on Tues­day Jan. 18 in Ta­cony.

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

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