In a court ruling stemming from last month’s fatal gas line explosion south of Bakersfield, a judge on Wednesday granted Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s request for a temporary restraining order forbidding a McFarland-based agricultural excavation company from digging without a representative of the utility present.
The order by Kern County Superior Court Judge Lorna Brumfield also requires both sides — PG&E as well as Big N Deep Agricultural Development Co. and its sister company, Jeff Alexander Farming — to comply with laws regarding notifications and marking of pipelines prior to excavation near natural gas lines.
Brumfield said she had never before been asked to issue a temporary restraining order forcing anyone to follow existing law, which she explained was expected regardless of a court order.
Big N Deep’s lawyer, Scott Perlman, argued against issuing the order, saying the utility’s request amounted to a “smear tactic” to publicly discredit Big N Deep. He also asserted the provision prohibiting excavation with a PG&E representative present would harm his client’s business because the utility sometimes fails to respond in a timely way to requests for pipeline markings.
PG&E’s lawyer, Nicholas Begakis, offered assurances the company would respond promptly to any notifications by Big N Deep that it wants to dig near a pipeline operated by the utility.
Brumfield scheduled a 10 a.m. Dec. 22 preliminary injunction hearing on the restraining order, which is part of a lawsuit PG&E filed this month against Big N Deep because of what it sees as a pattern of disregard for public safety and the utility’s property.
A Big N Deep employee was killed and two nearby residents were injured Nov. 13 when heavy machinery operated by the company struck and ignited a high-pressure PG&E gas line near Wible and Houghton roads.
Court filings by the two parties present conflicting versions of events leading up to four incidents since October 2014 in which PG&E alleges Big N Deep violated pipeline safety laws.
The first of these incidents, also near Wible and Houghton, resulted in a pipeline gash that forced evacuations but did not cause an explosion because the escaping gas did not ignite.
PG&E says Big N Deep began digging ahead of schedule, before the area’s natural gas transmission pipeline could be marked, and had to be stopped by the utility. The excavation company, however, says it received clearance from PG&E to begin digging, and that the utility misidentified the line’s location.
The following month in Wasco, PG&E says, Big N Deep again began an excavation job near a pipeline without waiting the period required for the utility to come mark the line. The digging company counters that PG&E gave permission to start early.
PG&E also blames Big N Deep for last month’s fatal accident, which is now the subject of investigations by the California Public Utilities Commission and Cal-OSHA. The utility says Big N Deep was digging with an expired permit, while the ag company says it was never contacted by PG&E for a meeting in the field, and that the utility failed to have a pipeline “spotter” present.
In the fourth incident cited by PG&E as cause for a restraining order, the utility says Big N Deep drove heavy digging machinery over a gas pipeline near Interstate 5 and Bear Mountain Boulevard without having a PG&E representative on site as required. It says the machine, called a ripper, tore a trench 16 inches deep above the line.
The excavation company denies it dug more than a few inches into dirt near the pipeline, and says it maintained a 50-foot buffer zone on each side of the line.