Local News

Contractor: Gas Line Fire Report Biased

Posted January 31, 2008 3:01 p.m. EST
Updated January 31, 2008 10:25 p.m. EST

— The subcontractor that drilled into an underground gas main last fall, causing it to explode into a fireball that lasted for hours, believes the state investigation into the incident was slanted in favor of gas company PSNC Energy.

A Fulcher Electric Co. crew was erecting a new traffic signal at the intersection of Kildaire Farm and Tryon roads on Oct. 10 when they punctured an 8-inch gas line. The escaping gas ignited, sending flames shooting more than 100 feet into the air.

The gas burned for about six hours before PSNC crews were able to cap the line, and the fire and resulting road repairs forced the closure of the busy intersection for a day. The incident caused an estimated $285,955 in damage.

The North Carolina Utilities Commission issued a 72-page report on the incident a month ago. It didn't place blame, but included findings to indicate PSNC had clearly marked the gas line at the intersection. A series of yellow marks across Tryon Road were in line with the hole the Fulcher Electric crew drilled, and a faded mark on Kildaire Farm Road also was in the same line, according to the report.

The report said an on-site meeting between the Fulcher Electric crew and PSNC managers could have averted the rupture by limiting possible excavation locations.

In a response issued by its attorneys, Fulcher Electric defended the actions of its crew and said the Utilities Commission report was worded in a way to shield PSNC from fallout after the explosion.

"The flavor of bias in the (state) report is blatant," the 13-page response states. "The fact-finding for the report process was unfair. It lacked any pretense of objectivity. ... The report also dangles words to avoid saying PSNC was at fault."

The company's response notes that the investigator for the Utilities Commission never interviewed any members of the crew or any Fulcher Electric officials, despite repeated requests, while several "debriefings" were held at PSNC offices.

The response also took issue with the findings in the report, maintaining that there were no bright yellow marks on the ground near the median to indicate the presence of a nearby gas line. Marks cited in the Utilities Commission report were not close to the site of the drilling and offered the crew no guidance, according to the response.

"This straight-line theory is absurd and doesn't work," the response states. "It is the same as saying that if Fulcher Electric ran a straight line from New York City to Eureka, Calif., it would probably intersect a gas line in Omaha, Neb."

The finding in the state report that the Fulcher Electric crew didn't wait the required two days after asking PSNC to mark its lines was misleading, according to the response. Cary officials and Rea Contracting, the general contractor on the Tryon Road widening project, both asked for underground utility lines near the intersection to be marked in the week before the explosion, the response states.

"The employees operating Fulcher Electric's equipment were very experience workers," the response said. "They know what markers mean. ... It is absolutely ludicrous to think these workers would not look for utility lines or would ignore them if they located one."

The Utilities Commission had no comment Thursday on Fulcher Electric's response, saying its December report speaks for itself.

PSNC spokeswoman Angie Townsend reiterated her statements of a month ago, saying the Utilities Commission report confirms the utility marked the gas line properly.

Susan Moran, a spokeswoman for Cary, said town officials have been talking with Rea Contracting to figure out who will pay for the damage.

Two weeks after the explosion, Cary officials determined PSNC didn't properly mark the gas line. After the Utilities Commission issued its findings, however, town officials said they would review the incident again and discuss possible restitution with Rea Contracting.