Thursday, May 05, 2005

Walnut Creek Explosion Companies Cited; Root Causes Unaddressed

Cal/OSHA handed down citations today in the November 2004 explosion at a Walnut Creek pipeline project that killed five workers and injured four others. Killed in the explosion were Tae Chin Im, 47, Javier Ramos, 36, Israel Hernandez, 36, Miguel Reyes, 43, and Victor Rodriguez, 26.

Four firms were cited.

  • Kinder-Morgan received two serious willful citations and a $140,000 fine, the maximum that Cal/OSHA is able to issue for willful citation.
  • Carollo Engineers, the firm that designed the route for the water main that was being built at the time of the explosion, received one serious citation for a penalty of $22,500.
  • Mountain Cascade, Inc. whose backhoe operator struck the line, received one serious citation and was fined $22,500.
  • The East Bay Municipal Utility District, which was overseeing the project, received one serious citation for $6750.
A separate criminal investigation into the explosion continues, as do at least three wrongful death lawsuits and one injury lawsuit in Alameda and Contra Costa Superior Courts.

According to Cal/OSHA Acting Chief Len Welsh:
The primary cause of the incident was that the location of the petroleum line was not known by the employees working in the area. Several employers failed to take required action and committed errors that contributed to the failure to determine and mark the location of the utility line.
According to the San Jose Mercury News,

In the report to be released today, investigators found Kinder Morgan failed to mark a sharp bend in the pipe. Instead, flags along South Broadway continued in a straight line as if the bend didn't exist.

Although Carollo's drawings showed the bend -- where the pipe veered to avoid the roots of a long-removed oak tree -- workers digging the trench for the water main followed the markings on the ground.

In the days after the explosion, officials at the utility district pointed to Carollo's drawings as evidence that Mountain Cascade was responsible for taking extra precautions in the area.

But shortly after 1 p.m. Nov. 9, a Mountain Cascade backhoe struck the petroleum pipe. The explosion was the country's deadliest liquid pipe disaster in two decades.

Now these are all what we (in the "safety profession" ) call these explanations the "immediate causes." Last March, however, based on a Contra Costa Times series, I summarized the incident as:
a virtual perfect storm of industrial disaster that swallowed the lives of five men and left fourteen children without fathers -- a pipeline company that had recently purchased too many aging pipelines to keep track of, a low-bid contractor with a terrible safety record and a municipal utility, unaware and unconcerned about the contractor's safety record driving the contractor to hurry and get the job done.
These are what are known as the root causes of the incident -- those causes that need to be addressed if similar incidents are to be prevented.

Mountain Cascade, Inc. was a Northern California construction firm with a terrible safety record, a company that routinely resisted investigators and intimidated employees who witnessed accidents out of talking to CalOSHA inspectors.

Kinder Morgan is the nation's largest owner of liquified fuel pipelines and had drawn a number of record-setting fines over the 21 months prior to the accident for numerous pipeline ruptures and spills.

The East Bay, meanwhile is criss-crossed with hundreds of miles of buried petroleum arteries carrying millions of gallons of toxic, highly dangerous fuel each day.

The Office of Pipeline Safety, a small unit within the Transportation Department which has authority over the nation's fuel pipelines, has only recently begun to comprehensively investigate the condition of the nation's pipelines. In the first 25,000 miles of petroleum pipelines examined, inspectors found 20,000 "integrity threats," 1,200 of which required immediate repair.

Finally, California's fire marshal's office, which oversees pipeline safety, has no enforcement authority even when it identifies violations of the law or unsafe conditions and the state government spends billions of dollars on construction projects without evaluating the safety records of the firms they hire.

As I concluded before:
What we have here is failures in multiple systems: the inability to sanction companies with unsafe workplace safety records, the inability to factor safety records into contracting systems, the inability to address serious problems of our crumbling infrastructure and the inability of government assume its most basic responsibility -- assuring the safety of its citizens.

It's the workers -- and their children -- who suffer from these failures.
Until the state(and federal) governments are able to assess much higher fines, and until the root causes are addressed -- the ability of unsafe firms to win government contracts, and the failure of state and federal agencies to provide adequate oversite -- these accidents will continue to happen.