One year after the gas line explosion that injured nine firefighters and caused $3 million of property damage to dozens of Greenwood businesses, a Puget Sound Energy executive has told residents the utility company has become more rigorous about its line inspections.
The natural gas line on the 8400 block of Greenwood Avenue North was supposed to have been retired and “cut and capped” in 2004. But, due to a contractor error, that didn’t happen, according to the results of a state investigation, and 12 years of wear-and-tear without maintenance led to a leak that ignited in the early morning hours of March 9, 2016.
Andy Wappler, PSE’s vice president of customer operations, told residents at a March 21 Greenwood Community Council meeting that the utility company has since modified its inspection process to include retired pipes.
“What happened in 2004, in short, is the technician who was there found a pipe on the map that was thought to be in the right spot, dug down and removed that pipe,” Wappler said. “That was a water pipe ... about a foot and half above the actual gas pipe.”
Additionally, an aboveground portion of the pipe was not removed when the pipe was decommissioned, Wappler said.
When pipes are retired, they are capped and workers are supposed to remove both aboveground and belowground portions of the pipe. In this case, neither portion was removed and eventually, people moving through the alley between Mr. Gyros and Neptune Coffee caused the remaining aboveground pipe to rupture, Wappler said.
Since then, PSE has checked the locations of all retired pipes in the area and plans to continue an audit of retired pipes across the entire system. Going forward, the agency will check the locations of retired pipes during the normal inspection process PSE conducts every two-to-three years, Wappler said.
“We are pretty confident that will keep people safe,” Wappler said. “This is the only instance like this we found. We think this is not going to be an issue going forward, but we want to double check.”
Fifteen businesses have filed claims with PSE, eight of which have been resolved, Wappler said. Businesses impacted by the explosion can still file claims.
Local business owner Chris Mayku, of Chaco Canyon Organic Cafe, and Emilia Jones, a representative from the Phinney Neighborhood Association, also gave updates during the meeting.
The neighborhood association was on scene the morning after the explosion. The organization’s staff quickly established the Greenwood Relief Fund and raised a total of $330,000 to help displaced residents and impacted businesses.
Money from the community poured in immediately -- Jones said children brought in piggy banks and over 40 businesses hosted fundraisers.
Relief payments helped residents displaced from their apartments afford a hotel for a little while longer, rather than end up on the street, Jones said. Businesses used the money to pay insurance deductibles -- or their employees’ wages -- while they remained closed.
“The fund was incredibly transformative for our neighborhood, for the businesses and people affected, it really made a difference,” Mayku said. “It showed the power of the neighborhood coming together.”
That support hasn’t subsided, Mayku said. But he added that there’s still much work to be done, even a year later. Personally, he’s struggled to find a contractor to make repairs to his storefront.
The Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission declined to participate in the Community Council’s explosion recap, due to ongoing litigation in regard to responsibility for the explosion, according to Rob Fellows, the president of council.
Wappler stressed to residents if they smell a gas leak -- an odor like rotten eggs -- they should leave immediately and call 911 or PSE.
“Picking up a phone or turning on a light can cause a spark,” he said. “Those fellows are happy to come out at any time, it’s free.”