Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The New Mexico Independent--Businesses at site of PNM gas leak were not warned of explosive hazard

By Bryant Furlow 5/10/10 12:13 PM
At Albuquerque’s busy Montgomery and Carlisle Blvd. intersection, managers of a hair salon and flower shop expressed shock Saturday over news reports that the PNM work crews that had dug up their parking lot in 2008 were responding to a potentially explosive natural gas pipeline leak.

The leak had been allowed to languish without repair for two months, between May and July 2008, The Independent reported Friday.

“One of the (PNM) guys, he said, ‘let’s see if we blow the place up’,” Ray Lueras told The Independent Saturday. “I thought he was joking but I remember looking at him because he wasn’t laughing.”

Lueras owns the Hairs to You salon, between an adjoining flower shop and the buried pipeline.

“I’d smelled gas in the back and thought there was a leak at the meter, so I called it in,” Albuquerque Wholesale Florist manager Robert Torres said, shaking his head. “Nobody took smoke breaks out back, thank God.”

The Carlisle entrance to the businesses’ parking lot was closed for more than a week while PNM crews worked, both men said.

In 2000, a campfire near a leaking natural gas pipeline southeast of Carlsbad caused an explosion that killed 12 campers, including five children. The following year, a small gas pipeline leak in Santa Fe led to an explosion that leveled a business building after an employee lit a cigarette.

‘There was no precaution’

“They dug it all up, built a big container there and did pipe work and I don’t know what else,” Lueras said. “But they didn’t tell me there was a leak. I’m a little disappointed we weren’t at least told about it, if not warned. What if somebody had gone out there to light a cigarette? There was no precaution.”

The amount of gas from the leak was enough to cause a significant explosive hazard, but according to Lueras and Torres, PNM crews did not explain what they were doing and no barracades warning signs were posted around the work site.

Nine people interviewed by PRC investigators said PNM personnel entered the underground vault around the pipeline without checking oxygen levels and without training for confined space work, according to a September 2009 PRC report. It was also unclear whether or not explosion-proof flashlights were used by the work crew, the report states.

Gas could have escaped into the businesses, an October 2008 PRC report states.

“It’s a little scary,” Torres said Saturday. “I have family and friends come in here all the time. My grandchildren come here.”

Pausing, Torres shook his head again.

“Man, I wouldn’t have come to work,” he said. “It’s not worth my life or my employees’ lives.”

Torres walked along the back of the building Saturday, pointing to asphalt patches where the PNM crews had dug up a swath of the parking lot and around the bases of three gas meters next to the building shared by the businesses.

Some of the crew’s patchwork in the parking lot is visible in satellite imagery at Google Maps, just south of a black dumpster.

Although PNM is subject to $500,000 in fines for violations of the Pipeline Safety Act and state regulations, PNM and Public Regulation Commission (PRC) Pipeline Safety Bureau staff have agreed to a proposed settlement of $66,000 in penalties for the incident, according to PRC records.

PRC Commissioners will review and approve or disapprove the settlement Monday.

“I think they should be fined the whole amount,” Torres said Saturday. “That was not right not to tell us (of the hazard).”

PRC commissioners will take public testimony Monday morning before deciding whether or not to accept the proposed $66,000 settlement worked out between PRC pipeline safety staff and PNM, Albuquerque PRC Commissioner Jason Marks told The Independent.

“Somebody made a decision that we’ll try to hide this,” Marks said. “I don’t know how high it went (but) it’s pretty serious.”

Residents worry about pipeline’s safety

A large apartment complex shares the rear parking lot with the businesses on the corner. More>>>