Durham County

State fines PSNC Energy, subcontractors in deadly gas explosion in downtown Durham

The N.C. Department of Labor has fined PSNC Energy and two subcontractors $21,100 in April’s deadly gas-line explosion in downtown Durham.

In a statement Wednesday night, the energy company said it is committed to learning from “this tragic incident” but disagrees with the state’s findings.

The largest fine, $14,000, went to Optic Cable technology Inc., the subcontractor that was laying fiber optic cable, for two alleged serious violations of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of North Carolina, according to the Labor Department.

According to the citations, the company failed to dig a test hole to determine the exact location of the underground pipe before drilling. The company also failed to immediately call 911 and NC-811 after rupturing the underground gas line near 115 N. Duke St. on April 10, according to the citation.

The ruptured line released natural gas for “an extended period of time,” the citation said, leading to a fire and explosion that killed Kaffeinate coffee shop owner Kong Lee and Jay Rambeaut, a PSNC worker responding to the leak who died two weeks later. The blast also injured 25 others.

“The penalties are in no way designed to make up for loss of life,” Dolores Quesenberry, spokesperson for the Labor Department, said in an email Wednesday.

In August, a Durham Fire Department report said a 3/4-inch gas service line was breached at 9:06 a.m.

The citation against Optic Cable Technology says the call to NC-811 was made at 9:28 a.m. The call to 911 was made at 9:38 a.m.

Investigators estimated more than 46,000 cubic feet of gas flowed during the hour before the explosion at 10:06 a.m., The News & Observer has previously reported.

The companies have 15 working days to request an informal conference with the Labor Department, to challenge the citations or to pay the penalty, Quesenberry said.

Other citations

The Labor Department cited PSNC Energy — doing business as Dominion Energy North Carolina — for one alleged serious violation with a total penalty of $5,000.

The citation said “ineffective response procedures” exposed a locator/first responder assessing the gas leak area to fire and explosion hazards without wearing protective clothing and a self-contained breathing apparatus and also allowed a locator/first responder to park his company vehicle near the gas leak.

In a statement, the energy company rejected the state’s finding and description of the incident.

“Our colleague who died ... was a highly trained and experienced first-responder for Dominion Energy,” according to the statement.

“The gas leak he was responding to that day was caused by a third-party contractor who damaged gas lines that were properly marked. The North Carolina Department of Labor’s citation in no way attributes any fault for the gas leak or explosion to Dominion Energy or our employee.

“We respectfully disagree with NCDOL’s conclusion that Dominion Energy did not have adequate procedures in place for our employees’ personal safety,” the statement continued. “The NCDOL citation refers to guidelines for protecting the safety of employees who are ‘exposed to a compressed natural gas spill.’”

The statement said that the employee wasn’t responding to a “compressed natural gas spill,” but “a reported leak on our natural gas distribution system, which is entirely different from a compressed natural gas spill.”

“Because the Durham gas incident did not involve compressed natural gas, we do not believe that those particular guidelines are applicable to his response during the incident,” the statement said.

The Labor Department also cited PS Splicing, another subcontractor, for one serious alleged violation with a total penalty of $2,100. The citation said the company failed to make frequent inspections of the job site, exposing one of its employees and four others to fire and explosion hazards.

The maximum penalty for each serious violation is $7,000. Under state law, the Labor Department must consider “the gravity of the violation, the size of the business, the good faith of the employer and the history of previous violations,” Quesenberry said.

Fines are distributed to the public-school systems.

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