Local News

State cites, fines contractors in downtown Durham blast that killed two

Posted October 16, 2019 4:03 p.m. EDT
Updated October 16, 2019 6:40 p.m. EDT

— The state Department of Labor has issued a series of citations and more than $21,000 in fines for the massive natural gas explosion six months ago near downtown Durham that killed two people, injured two dozen others and left a pile of rubble near Brightleaf Square.

The April 10 explosion rocked the 100 block of North Duke Street, killing the owner of the Kaffeinate coffee shop. A PSNC Energy employee who had responded to the reported gas leak died two weeks later of injuries he suffered in the blast.

A Durham Fire Department investigation identified the cause of the explosion: A three-person crew from Durham-based Optic Cable Technology was drilling horizontally as part of a project to install underground cables when they struck a 3/4-inch gas line in front on Kaffeinate at 115 N. Duke St.

Gas flowed for about an hour, filling underground cavities near Kaffeinate, before the blast, the department's report said. Firefighters haven't been able to pinpoint what ignited the explosion, however.

Optic Cable was cited for two serious violations of workplace safety regulations from the Labor Department, each carrying a $7,000 fine. Inspectors said the company failed to locate nearby utilities, including the gas line, before drilling and then failed to call the 811 service for utility response or 911 for emergency assistance.

PSNC, part of Dominion Energy, received one serious violation citation and a $5,000 fine. Inspectors said the utility allowed its employee to respond to a gas leak without personal protective gear, even parking his car in the blast zone.

Dominion spokeswoman Persida Montanez said the company disputes the violation, noting regulators referred to rules for protecting workers exposed to a compressed natural gas spill.

"Our employee in Durham was not responding to a compressed natural gas spill; he was responding to a reported leak on our natural gas distribution system, which is entirely different," Montanez said in a statement.

She called the worker who died, Jay Rambeaut, "a highly trained and experienced first responder" and said the gas line that was ruptured was properly marked.

"Safety is a core value at Dominion Energy," she said. "We are committed to learning from this tragic incident."

PS Splicing LLC, an Oxford-based telecommunications subcontractor working on the underground cable project, received one serious violation citation and a $2,100 fine. Inspectors said the company didn't perform regular inspections at the site, which could have identified the potential for a gas line rupture.

"The penalties are in no way designed to make up for loss of life," Labor Department officials said in an email, adding that all fines collected go to public schools in the area.

The citations were issued on Oct. 8, and the companies have 15 days from then to appeal the violations and the fines.

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