GA-PSC report on AGL pipeline and Homerville August 2017 explosion 2019-03-29

Update 2019-04-04: Actually the gas did go through a sewer pipe; AGL didn’t locate or mark that pipe, either. And the GA-PSC report was on the front page yesterday of the newspaper of the largest city in the Suwannee River Basin.

Maybe the gas didn’t go up a sewer pipe to the coffee shop after all. And in its long-awaited report, Pipeline Safety at the Georgia Public Service Commission is not letting AGL hand the blame to its contractors. This recommended fine does not look like the previous slap on the wrist.

[Filed]

GA-PSC says AGL failed to locate and mark its pipeline in use and failed to locate “their abandoned natural gas facility at 107 Courtland Ave.,” which is the address of the Coffee Corner which blew up in August 2017 and sent three women to the hospital with third-degree burns.

The report gets worse:

PROBABLE VIOLATION: AGLC failed to consider the use of a valve to stop the flow of gas, or to check the surrounding buildings and confined areas, during the response to this incident, as required by their procedures.

But those are just in the first two items, which only got a $15,000 recommended fine each. The same $15,000 level of fine is recommended for AGL’s failures to test its personnel for drug or alcohol after the incident.

The big item, with a $2,245,000 fine, is for AGL failing “to follow their investigation procedures” and instead letting a third-party contractor (mis-)handle that. If I’m reading this right, it means that even after the three women were taken to Shands in Gainesville, Florida, with third-degree burns of the sort that require skin grafts, AGL still did not follow its own investigation procedures.

[$2,305,000 TOTAL PROPOSED CIVIL PENALTY]

So for once a pipeline company gets a recommended fine a bit larger than a slap on the wrist: $2,305,000.00. Sure, that’s not even a tenth of a percent of the $8 billion Southern Company paid for AGL Resources in 2016, but it’s way more than the $10,000 “voluntary contribution” of the previous GA-PSC fine on AGL.

Even that’s not the end of it. GA-PSC staff added that AGL’s contract was late in numerous responses to pipeline location requests. So many that GA-PSC staff wonder if the contractor is using late responses to hide “a critical staffing issue.”

But wait, there’s more. Apparently AGL used flawed third-party contractor information to file a report with the Pipeline & Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA). This is interesting because I sure thought Bill Edge told me PHMSA had delegated everything about this intra-state natural gas pipeline to GA-PSC. That’s the same PHMSA that doesn’t even have this pipeline in its public map viewer. Nonetheless, I will request a copy of that report from PHMSA.

The GA-PSC Report

In the seven months since the August 2018 explosion in Homerville, Bill Edge retired from GA-PSC (as he told me in February he was going to do). Today his successor, Tom Krause, sent via email this report, as PDF, which is now on the WWALS website. Krause said the next step is to get a response from AGL. Then there could be a public hearing, if the PSC decides to have one. Maybe we should all request that GA-PSC have a public hearing.

In this blog post, I’ve omitted the boilerplate and transcribed (via OCR) the most interesting parts below.

NOTICE OF PROBABLE VIOLATION

As a result of this inspection Staff found that Atlanta Gas Light Company was in probable violation of the minimum federal safety standards; specifically:

  1. 49 CFR §192.605(a)—Each operator shall prepare and follow for each pipeline, a manual of written procedures for conducting operations and maintenance activities and for emergency response.
    1. 192.614(a)—Except as provided in paragraphs (d) and (e) of this section, each operator of a buried pipeline shall carry out, in accordance with this section a written program to prevent damage to that pipeline from excavation activities. For the purpose of this section, “excavation activities” includes excavation, blasting, boring, tunneling, backfilling, the removal of aboveground structures by either explosive or mechanical means, and other earth moving operations.
      1. Staff determined that the Operator failed to identify and mark their facilities as required by their procedures in Division II, Section 3.3, of their Operations and Procedural Manual (Stal and Marking Facilities) which states: “Before staking or marking underground gas facilities, the exact area where the blasting or excavation is to take place must be verified. If there is any question of where the work is to be performed, it should be resolved before any stakes or markings are placed.”

        INVESTIGATION FINDINGS: Staff found that the Operator failed to locate and mark their natural gas facilities which were located within the scope of UPC locate request number 08088-262-004.

      2. Staff determined that the Operator failed to identify and mark their facilities as required by their procedures in Division II, Section 3.12, (Abandoned Gas Facilities) which states:

        “For purpose of locating gas facilities in the State of Georgia and Virginia, the Company or its contractor will attempt to locate and mark an abandoned gas facility or provide information to the excavator regarding such facility should the presence of an abandoned gas facility within an excavation site be known. For this purpose, an abandoned gas facility is identified as a gas facility taken out of service on or after January 1, 2001 in Georgia and July 1, 2002 in Virginia. In Virginia, service lines connected to a single family dwelling unit are excluded.

        Where gas facilities are abandoned in place and not removed, the Company shall maintain records or a data base concerning the location and other characteristics of the abandoned gas facilities. When located or exposed, the excavator shall treat all abandoned facilities as a live facility. At no time shall an excavator remove an abandoned gas facility without first receiving authorization to do so by the Company.”

        INVESTIGATION FINDINGS: Staff determined that the Operator failed to locate their abandoned natural gas facility at 107 Courtland Ave., which was within the scope of UPC locate request numbers 08088-262-004 and 08088-262-005.

      PROBABLE VIOLATION: AGLC failed to follow their procedures required under §192.605(a) for conducting their damage prevention program required under §192.614.

    2. 49CFR §192.615 (a)—Each operator shall establish written procedures to minimize the hazard resulting from a gas pipeline emergency. At a minimum, the procedures must provide for the following:

      (3) Prompt and effective response to a notice of each type of emergency, including the following:

      (i) Gas detected inside or near a building.

      INVESTIGATION FINDINGS: Staff found that the Operators Emergency Response Procedures found in OPM Division II Section 22.3.7 (Visible Leaks or Third Party Damages) states:

      “If the leak location is visible, the following steps should be taken to control the flow of gas and protect the public:

      1. The Company IC will ensure that the flow of gas is stopped using valves, plugs, squeeze-off equipment, ete. All Company procedures shall be followed to ensure that Company personnel and the general public are not endangered. All vehicles and non-essential responders should be kept a safe distance from the site.
      2. Where necessary, call the Service Center Support Team (SCST) for a section shutdown as described in Division II, Section 22.3.9 of this OPM if the leakage is creating a hazardous condition and cannot be located and/or immediately brought under control.

        When there is a delay in venting or stopping the gas flow, it may be necessary to check surrounding buildings or other confined areas for the presence of gas more than once. Rechecking shall be as frequent as necessary. It is possible for gas to find a way into nearby buildings or confined areas while the crew is bringing the gas under control. Company crews or a designated contractor, properly equipped fire department personnel, etc. may be utilized to recheck, but the AGLC IC should be sure that rechecking is being done if appropriate.”

      During this investigation Staff found that the Operators initial responder/IC arrived at the scene of the incident at approximately 10:54 AM, and according to records provided by the Operator made the area safe at 11:48 AM. The explosion occurred at approximately 12:15 PM. Staff found no evidence which indicated that AGLC ever considered the use of an emergency valve to stop the flow of gas to the damaged facility. AGLC advised Staff that there was an identified emergency valve, and had it been used to stop the leak they would have lost service to an estimated 122 customers. Staff also found no evidence which demonstrated that any AGLC responder ever performed any monitoring in the surrounding buildings or other confined areas for the presence of gas with a combustible gas indicator prior to the explosion.

      PROBABLE VIOLATION: AGLC failed to consider the use of a valve to stop the flow of gas, or to check the surrounding buildings and confined areas, during the response to this incident, as required by their procedures.

  2. 49CFR §192.617—Each operator shall establish procedures for analyzing accidents and failures, including the selection of samples of the failed facility or equipment for laboratory examination, where appropriate, for the purpose of determining the causes of the failure and minimizing the possibility of a recurrence.

    INVESTIGATION FINDINGS: Staff determined that the Operator failed to follow their investigation procedures found in OPM Division II, Section 3.14.1 (Investigating and Documenting Third Party Damages) which states:

    “At a minimum, an investigation shall be performed to determine the cause of each third party damage on Company facilities. A report should be completed as soon as possible indicating the results of the investigation. If the locating was performed by an independent contractor and the accuracy or availability of locate marks are in question, the person performing the investigation shall immediately notify the locating contractor to request a representative be present. Once the investigation has been performed and the cause has been identified, corrective actions shall be taken to work with all parties involved to try and eliminate the chance of a future occurrence.”

    Staff found that the Operator did not perform an independent investigation into this third party damage, but allowed their locate contractor, USIC, who performed the locate request to perform their investigation. Staff determined that the failure investigation performed by USIC was fundamentally flawed. The USIC investigators claim that the excavator “was boring outside the scope of all locate requests called in for the area” has no basis in fact, and demonstrates a failure to properly investigate the damage which led to this explosion.

    Staff also found that AGLC then used the results of their 3rd-party investigation of the damage as the basis for their initial and 30-day report to PHMSA; however, they have failed to provide any evidence to demonstrate that they have investigated the events which occurred during the time following the damage, up to the point the explosion occurred.

    PROBABLE VIOLATION: AGLC failed to perform a complete failure investigation of the damage and subsequent events which led to the explosion of the Coffee Corner in Homerville, GA.

  3. 49 CFR §199.105(c)(2) — Post-accident testing: If a test required by this section is not administered within the 32 hours following the accident, the operator must prepare and maintain its decision stating the reasons why the test was not promptly administered. If a test required by paragraph (b)(1) of this section is not administered within 32 hours following the accident, the operator must cease attempts to administer a drug test and must state in the record the reasons for not administering the test.

    INVESTIGATION FINDINGS: During this investigation Staff found that the Operator failed to follow their Anti-Drug and Alcohol procedures found in Section 4.2. (Post-Accident Testing) of their plan which states:

    “As soon as possible but no later than 32 hours after an accident, the Company will drug test each employee whose performance either contributed to the accident or cannot be completely discounted as a contributing factor to the accident. The decision not to administer a test will be based on the Company’s determination, using the best available immediately after the that the employee’s performance could not have contributed to the accident or that, because of the time between the performance and the accident, it is not likely that a drug test would reveal whether the performance was affected by drug use.”

    PROBABLE VIOLATION: AGLC failed to perform post-accident drug testing of their covered employees whose performance either contributed to the accident or could not be completely discounted as a contributing factor to the accident.

  4. 49 CFR §199.225(a)(1) — Post-accident; As soon as practicable following an accident, the Company must test each surviving covered employee for alcohol if that employee’s performance of a covered function either contributed to the accident or cannot be completely discounted as a contributing factor to the accident. The decision not to administer a test must be based on specific information that the covered employee’s performance had no role in the cause(s) or severity of the accident.

    INVESTIGATION FINDINGS: During this investigation Staff found that the Operator failed to follow their Anti-Drug and Alcohol procedures found in Section 15.2.1 (Post-Accident Testing) of their plan which states:

    “As soon as practicable following an accident, the Company must test each surviving covered employee for alcohol if that employee’s performance of a covered function either contributed to the accident or cannot be completely discounted as a contributing factor to the accident. The decision not to administer a test must be based on specific information that the covered employee’s performance had no role in the cause(s) or severity of the accident.”

    PROBABLE VIOLATION: AGLC failed to perform post-accident alcohol testing of their covered employees whose performance either contributed to the accident or could not be completely discounted as a contributing factor to the accident.

LETTER OF CONCERN

During this investigation, Staff noted issues with the number of “3N — Unmarked — Late” responses provided to the GA-811 Positive Response Information System (PRIS) by AGLC’s contract locator, USIC, for their locate requests.

  1. Staff requested, and was provided data by GA-811 which indicated that for the month of August, 2018, there were 63,920, 3N responses to PRIS: and that 59,398 of these responses (92.9%) were submitted by USIC. Staff determined that 15,019 of these responses were for AGLC locate requests. AGLC’s member codes represented 28 of the 88 member codes which were responded to by USIC during this time frame.
  2. Staff also requested, and was provided data by GA-811 which indicated that for the month of December 2018, there were 52,688 3N responses to PRIS: and that 47,633 of these responses (90%) were submitted by USIC. Staff determined that 12,330 of these responses were for AGLC locate requests. AGLC’s member codes represented 29 of the 87 member codes which were responded to by USIC during this time frame.

STAFF’S CONCERN:

  1. Staff is concerned that AGLC’s contract locator, USIC, is using the “3N — Unmarked — Late” PRIS response code to mask a critical staffing issue. Staff did not pursue this issue under this investigation, however, they have recommended to the Director that both the Pipeline Safety Office, and the GUFPA enforcement unit review this issue to determine if further enforcement action is warranted.

  2. As demonstrated by the examples cited above, USIC is repeatedly failing to perform locates in the required time frame, as required by both AGLC’s procedures, and the state dig law; however, there is no indication that AGLC is aware of this issue, or, if they are aware that they have taken any action to address it.
  3. During this investigation, Staff determined that the failure investigation performed by USIC, and which was used by AGLC for both their initial and 30-day report to the National Response Center, was fundamentally flawed. The USIC investigators claim that the excavator “was boring outside the scope of all locate requests called in for the area” has no basis in fact, and demonstrates a failure to properly investigate the damage which led to this explosion. Staff is concerned that the obvious failure to properly perform this investigation also calls into question any other investigations this individual has performed. Staff has no knowledge that the Commission, or the NRC have been provided with any updates concerning the apparent cause of the explosion, so they are also concerned that AGLC has taken no apparent action to address this issue.

PROPOSED CIVIL PENALTY

Under Commission Rule 515-9-1.01, by virtue of the authority vested in the Commission by law and pursuant to orders issued by the Commission on May 4, 1967, July 6, 1967, April 23, 1968. and October 29, 1970, all Rules and Regulations prescribed by the United States Department of Transportation applicable to the “Transportation of Natural and Other Gas by Pipeline: Minimum Safety Standards” (C.F.R. 49, Parts 191 and 192) are by this Rule made the Rules and Regulations of the Georgia Public Service Commission for the safe installation and operation of all natural gas transmission and distribution facilities by companies subject to the jurisdiction of the Commission within this State.

Under Commission Rule 515-9-3-.08 (Written Formal Notice of Violation), the Commission may propose a civil penalty in conjunction with this notice of probable violation. Further, the Southern Company Gas / Atlanta Gas Light Company is subject to civil penalties under O.C.G.A. § 46-2-91 for violation of any Commission Order or Statute or Rule administered by the Commission. As provided by law, civil penalties can be assessed in the amount of $15,000.00 for the first day of each violation and $10,000.00 per violation/per day that each such violation continues.

Staff has reviewed the circumstances surrounding this incident and has recommended the following civil penalties:

ITEMCODEREFProposed Penalty
1(a) §192.605(a) / §192.614(a) Damage Prevention $ 15,000.00
1(b) §192.605(a) / §192.615(a) Emergency Procedures $ 15,000.00
2 §192.617 Failure Investigation $ 2,245,000.00
3 §199.105(c)(2) Post accident testing (drug)$ 15,000.00
4 §199.225(a)(1) Post accident testing (aleohol)$ 15,000.00

TOTAL PROPOSED CIVIL PENALTY $ 2,305,000.00

Please note that this recommended amount is less than the amount authorized by Georgia law.

Please review and respond to this report in accordance with the attached Instructions for Responding to Enforcement Letters Issued by the Georgia Public Service Commission.

 -jsq, John S. Quarterman, Suwannee RIVERKEEPER®

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