After the fires were out and the dead accounted for, state regulators tasked with determining the cause of the natural gas explosion that leveled an
In addition to recovering the suspect section of 12-inch cast-iron gas main, UGI retained possession of the pipe, selected a lab to examine it and will pay for the analysis, state regulators said.
Critics say the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission's reliance on utilities to do the investigative legwork when disasters strike raises concerns.
"The concern from the public's viewpoint is that the company may have caused the problem, so it's a lot like letting the fox guard the henhouse," said Carl Weimer, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, a national watchdog group.
That was a concern from the earliest stages of the investigation for attorney Mark Altemose, who represents the family of William and Beatrice Hall, two of the five people who died in the Feb. 9 explosion.
"I did not want UGI essentially running the show," Altemose said, noting he put the utility on notice that he wanted his experts to have access to the evidence and investigation. So far, UGI has cooperated, he said.
State and utility industry officials say the concern is unwarranted. The PUC is anything but hands-off in utility accident investigations, they say. And while the utility makes some key decisions, the investigation is a collaboration between the utility and the PUC's engineers, said PUC gas safety chief Paul Metro.
In the days after the blast at 13th and Allen streets, UGI workers dug up the street looking for the point where natural gas escaped. The blast ignited a firestorm that gutted a row of houses on the west side of N. 13th Street.
More than five days after the explosion, UGI workers discovered the 83-year-old gas line had cracked into two separate pieces, and hoisted them from a trench in Allen Street.
The sections of pipe -- one 4 feet long and the other 5 feet long -- were placed in crates and shipped to Affiliated Engineering Laboratories in Edison, N.J., to determine which among a multitude of factors caused the crack.
UGI and PUC officials would not discuss the progress of the investigation or say when it might be completed. Altemose, however, said engineers have determined the crack began in an area where the pipe rested for decades underground on a block of wood.
David Kwass, a
"The destruction of evidence, the changing of accident scenes, the failure to get solid measurements and documentation of accident scenes are all examples of the type of accident investigations I see all the time," Kwass said.
Kwass noted utilities often choose to settle lawsuits by workers and consumers injured in gas or electrical accidents out of court. The majority of settlements include a confidentiality requirement that keeps details of the accident not contained in PUC documents out of the public record so they cannot be used to show repeated mistakes, he said.
Members of two families who escaped a December 2006 explosion that destroyed their homes on Mohawk Street in Allentown had a similar experience. They settled a lawsuit against UGI nearly three years later, but the amount was also confidential.
The PUC concluded an improperly trained worker upgrading gas meters caused the Mohawk Street blast. In a settlement with the PUC, UGI agreed to pay $160,000 and review its training procedures.
Weimer, of the Pipeline Safety Trust, said that while it's not unusual for utilities to take the lead in accident investigations, allowing them to select the labs is problematic. He noted that pipeline operators and contractors often have longstanding business relationships.
"It becomes hard to bite the hand that feeds you," Weimer said, adding that the potential for a conflict of interest would be eliminated if regulators selected the lab.
UGI spokesman Joe Swope said Affiliated is one of few engineering firms in the industry with the broad range of expertise and ability to conduct a comprehensive investigation.
"They have been involved in investigations of several national incidents, which suggests they are accepted by the industry as a resource," Swope said, noting that PUC investigators agreed with UGI's choice of laboratories.
Metro added that the
Metro said regulators around the country have been relying for years on results from labs selected by utilities. He said he is not aware of any case in which a laboratory fudged its analysis.
The PUC is one of two agencies with the power to investigate pipeline accidents in Pennsylvania.
"We select incidents based on the circumstances and what the potential safety payback could be," Knudsen said. "When we see issues that we have seen before, we are not as apt to conduct an investigation."
In the case of the Allentown blast, the NTSB deferred the investigation to state utility regulators.
Metro said his engineers are trained by the federal transportation department and have the NTSB's confidence. He noted that in addition to the Allentown blast, the NTSB gave the PUC responsibility to investigate a fatal Jan. 18 natural gas explosion in Philadelphia.
Unlike the PUC, the NTSB takes possession of equipment involved in accidents and does its own analysis.
In September, a 30-inch gas pipeline owned by Pacific Gas & Electric ruptured and devastated the San Francisco suburb of San Bruno, Calif., killing four and injuring more than 50. Knudsen said the NTSB shipped a 28-foot section of pipe to its training center in Ashburn, Va.
"We don't have the ability to take control of a 1-ton pipe," Metro said, of the PUC's limited resources. "We would have no place to store something like that."
Former PUC lawyer and commissioner Terry Fitzpatrick said the state can't afford the equipment or the brainpower to operate its own lab. Fitzpatrick, now president of the Energy Association of Pennsylvania, a utility industry group, added, "There's already a lot of pressure on the state budget."