The staff of a state commission faulting Missouri Gas Energy's handling of last year's gas leak on the Country Club Plaza drew a swift response from those involved in the lawsuits in the aftermath of the J.J.'s Restaurant explosion.
An attorney for the contractor whose employees struck the unmarked gas line said the report vindicates Heartland Midwest.
On Feb. 19, 2013, Heartland Midwest was laying fiber for cable lines when workers struck a gas line. They immediately called 911 and the Kansas City Fire Department and MGE crews arrived.
What happened after that is the subject of the report issued Thursday by the Missouri Public Service Commission. The commission itself will decide whether to fine MGE for failing to follow proper procedures.
A federal agency already issued fines against Heartland Midwest and J.J.'s restaurant.
"On behalf of Heartland Midwest, we view this as a complete vindication of what we had been saying all along," said Brad Russell, attorney for Heartland Midwest. "We hit a natural gas line and we weren't told about the existence of three lines. We were told about two lines."
He said the PSC staff agreed with what Heartland had maintained all along. They would have never hit the gas line had it been marked.
"Natural gas lines get hit fairly regularly. It's something that the gas company has learned occurs and that they're trained to respond to," Russell said. "If MGE had done all the things the report suggests they could have done then all of this would have been that Feb. 19 was a smelly day on the Plaza."
Russell said it is odd that a year after the explosion killed server Megan Cramer and injured 15 others that the locating company can't say how the natural gas line went unmarked.
"These accidents will continue to happen unless we have reliability in how those lines are marked," Russell said.
He said Heartland was the scapegoat initially, but the company had a limited role.
"All Heartland did was hit an undisclosed unmarked gas line on Feb. 19 and that the explosion happened because of actions and inactions of MGE as opposed to a simple story that we hit the line," Russell said. "Heartland is involved in all the lawsuits that have been filed so we will continue to defend our interests. We think this report helps us greatly."
Mike Tanner, a supervisor for Heartland Midwest, was critically injured in the blast and spent weeks in an area burn unit. He and his wife, Crystal, have sued.
Tanner said he has incurred more than $1 million in medical bills after he suffered burns over 20 percent of his body, debilitating fractures and lacerations following the explosion.
Richard McCleod, an attorney for the Tanners, said MGE had a good written plan in place, and should have followed it.
"Probably the most disappointing thing is MGE put gas profits ahead of the safety of people," he said. "Had they followed their own rules Megan Cramer would be alive and Mike Tanner would be walking around playing with his kids."
Steven G. Emerson, an attorney for J.J.'s owner, issued the following statement:
The thrust of the report issued today by the investigative staff of the Missouri Public Service Commission is that MGE's emergency response to the ruptured gas main was too little and too late. MGE's personnel failed to follow pipeline safety laws and the company's own procedures to make the area safe after arriving at the site of the gas leak in front of JJ's Restaurant. Among other failings, they took too long - more than 30 minutes - to check for gas accumulation inside of JJ's Restaurant and then failed to effectively evacuate the restaurant once they belatedly realized that hazardous levels of gas had accumulated inside the restaurant. The PSC staff has recommended that MGE be fined for its safety violations and has recommended changes in MGE's policies and practices.
The report also describes in detail how the gas line strike that set events in motion was the result of a series of errors and miscommunications by USIC, which located and marked the various utility lines, and Heartland Midwest, the contractor hired by Time Warner Cable Midwest to conduct the horizontal drilling.
We applaud the PSC for the care that went into its investigation and its thoughtful recommendations to prevent similar catastrophes in the future. The report answers many of the questions that JJ's staff and their families have raised as they continue to cope with this tragedy.
JJ's Restaurant's case is set for trial in July of 2015. In addition to the issues raised in the PSC's report, JJ's intends to pursue a number of additional claims at trial, such as why MGE failed to advise the excavator Heartland Midwest how deep the gas line was buried when it learned that Heartland Midwest was going to conduct horizontal directional drilling in the area and why MGE did not have readily accessible shutoff valves in its system to quickly stop the flow of gas after the line was struck.
Attorneys for the J.J.'s employees who have sued and Cramer's family did not issue statements.
MGE said it will vigorously challenge the PSC findings. Here is the company's entire statement.
The safety of our customers, employees and community is and always has been our number one priority. Missouri Public Service Commission (PSC) rules prevent Missouri Gas Energy (MGE) from commenting in significant detail on the PSC staff's report. However, MGE disagrees with the alleged violations and will vigorously challenge them in the formal legal process. There are important facts related to the incident that were not included," the statement says.
Upon learning an MGE gas line was damaged by a cable contractor, MGE promptly responded and followed well-established company and industry procedures. The moment the MGE responder arrived, his investigation began. He called for additional responders, investigated the source of the leak and developed a plan for containing it. MGE responders conducted tests and urged the evacuation of several buildings in the impacted area, including JJ's. MGE responders urged JJ's to evacuate on three separate occasions. While many individuals left, our employees cannot force anyone to evacuate.
Our thoughts and prayers continue to be with those impacted by this tragic event and their loved ones. Consistent with our commitment to safety, MGE intends to evaluate the report and work closely with the PSC staff to address any recommendations that could further enhance safety in the future.
The Kansas City Fire Department said it will work with MGE in an effort to improve responses to gas incidents.
KCFD works with MGE and other utilities on many aspects of public safety as part of our commitment to improve our ability to protect Kansas City from dangerous situations," the agency said in a statement. "We look forward to working with MGE to ensure that we continue to improve our actions and approaches to natural gas emergencies. The recommendations of the Missouri Public Service Commission report, along with other sources of information regarding best practices, will play a central role in our continued efforts.
KCTV5's Kelly Just, Heather Staggers, Sandra Olivas, Clare Otto and Eric Chaloux contributed to this report.
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