Excavating crew is faulted in gas explosion

January 27, 1995|By Darren M. Allen | Darren M. Allen,Sun Staff Writer

Workers for an Ellicott City contractor who ruptured a Westminster natural gas pipeline last week may have ignored above-ground markings while installing an underground cable television line, the state Public Service Commission has determined.

More than two hours after the main was damaged Jan. 19, a natural gas explosion leveled one home, left 20 families homeless and caused property damage estimated at more than $1 million.

The Public Service Commission -- which was investigating whether Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.'s response to the accident conformed to state regulations -- said workers for Apollo Trenching Co. weren't paying attention to marks on the street indicating where BGE's pipeline ran.

"The preliminary investigation does show the excavator didn't heed the markings that were made on the ground," said Frank Fulton, director of the PSC's consumer assistance and public affairs division. "The excavator didn't dig in a safe and prudent manner."

The preliminary investigation -- the complete report is expected with in two weeks -- shows that BGE's response to the leak and its performance after the blast "were adequate," Mr. Fulton said.

While the PSC has the power to cite and fine BGE and the other utilities it regulates, it can do nothing -- criminally or in a civil action -- against Apollo Trenching or any nonutility, Mr. Fulton said.

Maryland Occupational Safety and Health officials are also investigating the incident. They declined yesterday to discuss their inquiry.

BGE is conducting its own investigation of its response to the gas line rupture.

Attempts to reach Apollo Trenching Co. have been unsuccessful. The company does not have a corporate charter registered with the state, does not have a Howard County or Carroll County business license and does not have a listed telephone number.

Leonard C. Redmond III, a Baltimore attorney who represents the owner of Apollo, declined yesterday to comment on the PSC's findings, saying he had not read them. He said Apollo acted properly after the main was struck.

"My client, according to my investigation, notified BGE of the rupture immediately," he said.

Mr. Redmond declined to identify Apollo's owner or to explain its lack of corporate charter, business license or telephone number.

The Apollo Trenching Co. was working as a subcontractor for Maryland Underground Inc., which had been hired by Prestige ** Cable Television of Maryland to lay cable in the Autumn Ridge neighborhood in north Westminster.

Officials for Prestige Cable declined to comment, referring questions to their corporate attorney.

In the aftermath of the blast that sent debris up to a mile from the Autumn Ridge community last week, many of the families whose homes were severely damaged have begun to question whether BGE's response to the rupture was adequate.

BGE criticized

Some in the neighborhood dispute the utility's contention that its workers -- who responded to the leak an hour after Apollo reported it -- carefully checked natural gas levels in the homes near the rupture.

Shelley Sarsfield, whose home is directly across the street from the house that used to stand at 90 Sunshine Way, disputes that a BGE employee ever tried to enter her home; the utility says its worker knocked on Mrs. Sarsfield's door, but no one answered.

"This is ludicrous," she said, referring to reports that BGE officials believe the company could not have prevented the blast.

Others say they have a lingering fear of underground digging in the neighborhood. The gas line, installed in 1993 to serve an adjacent development, provides service to only three homes in Autumn Ridge.

Lawsuits expected

"I'll tell you one thing," said Howard Swift, whose home was severely damaged by the blast. "I'll never want to see anyone digging around here again."

While most homeowners have received at least partial payment from their insurance companies to repair or replace their homes, legal observers said lawsuits almost certainly will follow.

The companies providing insurance to residents almost certainly will sue BGE, the cable company and the trenching company, HTC the legal observers said. BGE likely will ask to be removed from those suits and probably will file suit against the cable company and the trenching company, the observers said, and Prestige Cable also would be expected to seek damages from the trenching company.

"This will take a long time to sort out," said Art Slusark, a BGE spokesman.

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