One year before last week’s fatal gas line explosion south of Bakersfield, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. contributed to a similar accident by failing to mark the location of the same high-pressure pipeline, as requested by an excavation company, or have a representative on site during digging, state investigators have tentatively determined.
The Oct. 24, 2014 accident took place in the same area as last week’s accident when an employee of the same contractor struck transmission pipeline 300A with heavy equipment. Schools and residents had to be evacuated but no one was injured because the escaping gas did not ignite.
Based on PG&E’s role in that accident, the California Public Utilities Commission’s Safety and Enforcement Division issued the San Francisco-based utility a notice of probable violation in May of this year. PG&E appealed the finding in June and commission staff said the agency is still analyzing the accident.
On Tuesday, PG&E blamed the contractor, McFarland-based Big N Deep Ag Development Co., for last year’s accident. It confirmed Big N Deep had requested a digging permit before the 2014 accident but that the contractor began excavating before the utility had a chance to mark the pipeline’s location.
“PG&E has at least two working days to respond to each request (for a permit), per California Code,” the utility said in an email. “The excavator did not wait and dug into the pipeline.”
A spokesman for Big N Deep said he had no information to respond to PG&E’s allegation regarding the timing of last year’s dig.
Word of the CPUC’s preliminary finding surfaced as a war of words broke out Tuesday between PG&E and the excavation company over how significant it is that the contractor was working last week with an expired digging permit when the accident occurred.
PG&E said Big N Deep’s excavation permit expired eight days before heavy machinery operated by the contractor as part of preparation for a new almond orchard struck the 3-foot-diameter gas line, sparking a fireball visible at least 10 miles away. The person operating the machinery was killed and two other people nearby were badly injured.
The utility, which owns the pipeline, said digging near a pipeline without a current permit is illegal. Contractors must complete their digging within the permit’s 28-day window, PG&E said, “to ensure that the (location) markings can be preserved.”
Big N Deep denied the relevance of the expiration, saying through a spokesman the ticket could have easily been renewed as a simple matter of paperwork, and that the lapse “had nothing to do with the accident itself.”
“Both Big & Deep and PG&E knew where the pipeline was,” spokesman Larry Pickett said by email.
The name of the Big N Deep employee killed in the mid-afternoon accident near Houghton and Wible roads has not yet been released by the Kern County coroner’s office four days after the accident.
A spokesman for the Kern County Sheriff’s Office, which includes the coroner’s department, said workers there cannot release the victim’s name until the body has been positively identified and next-of-kin notified.
The two women injured in the explosion, nearby resident Gloria Ruckman and her mother, Amalia Leal, suffered second- and third-degree burns, while Ruckman’s newborn baby was apparently unharmed.
A spokesman for San Joaquin Community Hospital, where they were being treated Tuesday, said the two women remained in fair condition.
An online fundraising drive launched to aid in their recovery had raised $23,075 by 7 p.m., easily surpassing the original, $15,000 goal just three days after the campaign began. More than 225 people had contributed, and a new goal of $35,000 was set on the website, gofundme.com/c7ab9ykk.
The CPUC is investigating last week’s accident and will revisit the 2014 incident as part of its work.
Cal-OSHA said Tuesday it, too, has opened an investigation into last week’s explosion, and that it has up to six months to finish its work. It said the agency did not investigate last year’s accident because no one was hurt.
Spokeswoman Paola Laverde said Cal-OSHA has not yet determined whether Big N Deep had a valid permit to excavate but that the company has a responsibility “to make sure ... they’ve done all their investigation before they start digging.”
Big N Deep said it is cooperating with investigations by local and state agencies.
“This was a tragic accident involving the loss of a company employee and injuries to local residents,” the company said in a written statement.
“With over 12 years of experience, hundreds of clients and a solid safety record, (Big N Deep) has been and is dedicated to working with utilities and others with pipelines to prevent such incidents.”
Cal-OSHA levied a $225 fine against Big N Deep after one of its workers was injured while preparing a McFarland ag field for cultivation more than three years ago.
According to an agency summary posted online, the accident occurred at about 1 a.m. July 27, 2012, when hydraulic fluid leaking from a tractor’s damaged supply hose ignited. Flames entered the tractor’s cab and the worker suffered first- and second-degree burns to his forearms and face.