Cal-OSHA issued fines totaling $40,250 Wednesday against the McFarland ag contractor whose employee accidentally ruptured a PG&E pipeline south of Bakersfield in November, causing an explosion that killed him and badly injured two women living in a nearby home destroyed by the blast.
The agency said the contractor, Big & Deep Ag Development Co., failed to properly train the bulldozer operator on underground utility hazards or warn him about the location of the pipeline, which it said owner Pacific Gas and Electric Co. had marked. The agency also accused the company of digging with an expired permit.
“Big & Deep Ag Development was aware of the pipeline’s location and failed to protect (its) employee and nearby residents from the danger,” Cal-OSHA said in a news release.
In a phone interview Wednesday, company owner Jeff Alexander called the fines “sort of ridiculous,” adding he filed an appeal with the agency last week.
Alexander admitted personally making a mistake on the permit’s expiration date. He insisted the error had no effect on the incident because “we know where the line was.”
He also said the worker killed at the scene, 44-year-old Earlimart resident Joseph Michael "Mike" Ojeda, had plenty of job experience, having put in more than 4,000 hours working around underground utilities.
“This ain’t his first rodeo,” Alexander said.
On Nov. 13, Ojeda was using a Caterpillar dozer and ripper at the northwest corner of Wible and Houghton roads to prepare land for planting almond trees. The machine hit a 3-foot-diameter, high-pressure transmission pipeline.
Besides killing him, the resulting explosion caused second- and third-degree burns to nearby resident Gloria Ruckman and her mother, Amalia Leal, but apparently caused no injury to Ruckman's newborn baby.
A similar accident occurred one year earlier when the same contractor struck the same section of pipeline, forcing evacuations. No explosion resulted because escaping gas did not ignite.
Cal-OSHA spokeswoman Julia Bernstein said the agency does not exercise discretion with regard to the size of the fines it levies.
“Cal-OSHA does not assess fines based on the emotion of the incident that occurred,” she said. “There’s specific rules to enforcement.”
A separate investigation begun by the California Public Utilities Commission is not yet complete, a spokeswoman for the agency said.
Family members of the women injured by the blast have filed a lawsuit against Big N Deep and PG&E. The suit’s next court date is set for June 13, and the case is expected to go to trial in March.