Wednesday, March 16, 2005

What Happened To My Dad?

The Contra Costa Times ran a fascinating, yet heartbreaking series last week describing 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.

The result:
The blast threw Victor Rodriguez so high into the air that when he hit the pavement every bone in his skull shattered. His left leg, sternum and ribs broke.

The battered body of the father of two young girls lay burning in the street near downtown Walnut Creek that November afternoon.

Roger Paasch heard the shouts, saw the fireball roaring toward him and scrambled out of a 14-foot-deep trench.

Jeremy Knox followed right behind.

When they reached ground level, Knox felt his face swelling. He looked down. Skin hung off his hands.

Paasch chased down two workers who ran by engulfed in flames and got them to the ground. The flames died out on one. Paasch ripped the burning shirt off the other.

Somebody yelled to Paasch, "You're bad, you're bad! Sit down, sit down!"

But Paasch, a welder, was too badly burned to sit. He walked instead. Minutes later, medics loaded him into one of four medical helicopters, where he slipped into unconsciousness.

Four months later, his nightmares endure.

"I remember everybody else was all messed up," Paasch said. "Everybody in the whole thing was messed up."

As the victims and their families cope with the disaster's aftermath, investigators consider whether to blame one or both of the companies involved.

On Nov. 9, the men were building a water main for the East Bay Municipal Utility District, unaware they were in extreme danger.

The trench they were digging and working in had crossed a point where construction drawings clearly showed a high-pressure gasoline line jutting toward their path. The plans warned specifically that the 100-foot section they had crossed into was a place where extra precautions were required.

The warnings went unheeded.
Killed in the explosion were Tae Chin Im, 47, Javier Ramos, 36, Israel Hernandez, 36, Miguel Reyes, 43, and Victor Rodriguez, 26.

The story began when the East Bay Utility District needed to lay down a water main and hired and fired one company for not working fast enough, then hired Mountain Cascade, Inc., a Northern California construction firm with a terrible safety record.
In the six years before a fatal Walnut Creek explosion in November, two of the company's workers and a motorist died on the company's job sites.

At least six other workers suffered serious injuries, including a 19-year-old college student whose leg was ripped off at the hip last summer and three sewer workers who nearly died from exposure to poisonous gas.

Investigators cited haste in two of the deaths and a failure to properly train a worker in the other. The company routinely resisted investigations by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, according to records, and claimed in a 2001 letter to the agency that its problems had to do with image, not safety.
In addition to their poor safety record, Mountain Cascade routinely resisted investigators and intimidated employees who witnessed accidents out of talking to CalOSHA inspectors.

The owner of the pipeline that exploded was Kinder Morgan, the nation's largest owner of liquified fuel pipelines. The rapidly expanding company has faced questions over the past two years about its ability to safely maintain its expanding pipeline network. The Houston-based company has drawn a number of fines over the past 21 months for numerous pipeline ruptures and spill, including a record-setting $325,000 federal Transportation Department penalty for not monitoring cracks and corrosion throughout its network.
Kinder Morgan's troubles, including the Nov. 9 disaster in Walnut Creek, show it probably fails to commit enough resources to maintenance and safety, said Carl Weimer, executive director of Pipeline Safety Trust, a watchdog group in Washington state, where a 1999 pipeline explosion killed three people.

"It seems to relate to how fast they've grown," Weimer said of the company's huge expansion over the past eight years. "Is it freak events or is it a management thing? Kinder Morgan has had a rapid growth period that could have contributed to some of those problems."

A Kinder Morgan spokesman denied there was a pattern of mismanagement but acknowledged the company has experienced an unusual series of accidents.
Kinder Morgan was supposed to place markers delineating the location of the pipeline. It's not clear that they ever did that. Mountain Cascade, meanwhile, was supposed to avoid the fuel line, even if it meant excavating by hand. But they were in a hurry and never shut down the backhoe.

The East Bay area is particularly vulnerable to this type of problem.
Millions of gallons of toxic, highly dangerous fuel course each day through hundreds of miles of hidden petroleum arteries buried under the East Bay, part of a vast nationwide circulatory system that delivers two-thirds of the nation's petroleum. Contra Costa has more petroleum pipelines per square mile than any other California county.

The nationwide network is aging, at times neglected, and historically poorly regulated. When pipes leak, the threat is normally limited to the environment or gasoline prices.
And until recently, the federal government, which has authority over interstate pipeline safety, has been asleep at the switch.
After decades of poor monitoring, the federal Office of Pipeline Safety, a small unit within the Transportation Department, began to comprehensively investigate the condition of the nation's pipelines.

In the first 25,000 miles of petroleum pipelines examined as of last year, inspectors found 20,000 "integrity threats," 1,200 of which required immediate repair. Regulators said those early results showed such an inventory was overdue.

Industry officials say statistics show moving petroleum through pipes is safer than by trucks or trains.

They also say the number of pipeline incidents is dropping.

That's true, but accidents with death, injuries or more that $50,000 in damage are on the rise as more fuel flows through pipelines and population growth puts more people near them, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
And 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 underneath it all is that state government that spends billions of dollars on construction projects without evaluating the safety records of the firms they hire.

In this case, although Mountain Cascade submitted the lowest bid by $500,000, the other bidder, Ranger Pipelines Inc. of San Francisco, had a far better safety record. EBMUD was not aware of either firms' safety record, however.
The law does not require it, and most public agencies do not request or review bidders' safety histories before awarding multimillion-dollar contracts.

"They (public agencies) think it's too expensive," said Frances C. Schreiberg, a former staff attorney for the investigations division of the state Division of Occupational Safety and Health.

Without such a law, contractors who cut corners gain an advantage in a state that requires public contracts go to the lowest "responsible bidder," she said.

"It creates an unlevel playing field for those who do safety," said Schreiberg, who has lobbied to require safety reviews as part of public contracting law.
Public agencies assume that companies with a valid contractors license must have a safe record or CalOSHA would have taken away their license. But CalOSHA doesn't have the authority to do that. All they can do is turn a company's citation history over to the Contractor's State License Board, but the board can't say when or if it ever acts on CalOSHA referrals.

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.

Many of those injured in the blast still suffer from their burns.
For the families of the dead, it's even worse.

When Victor Rodriguez died, he left two daughters, Ariana, 3, and Alegandra, 18 months. He was already looking forward to their quinceanera parties, when the girls turned 15. He planned to buy them beautiful dresses and dance all night.

"His daughters were his treasures," said Juana Liliana Arias, 26, their mother.

The girls are too young to understand why their father is gone. But since his death, Ariana sometimes sees her mother crying by herself.

The 3-year-old tells her, "Don't cry, Mommy, I'm with you."