Fallen fire captain's daughter testifies that propane line was cut at blast site
The explosion that killed Farmington Fire Rescue Capt. Michael Bell in September has revived support for legislation to prevent propane-related disasters
Donna M. Perry
Sun Journal, Lewiston, Maine
AUGUSTA, Maine — The daughter of a Farmington Fire Rescue captain killed in an explosion Sept. 16 in Farmington testified Tuesday before a Legislature joint standing committee that installation of a bollard near the LEAP building severed an underground propane line, and that the tragedy was “preventable and never should have happened.”
Danielle Bell Flannery, whose father, Capt. Michael Bell died in the tragedy, testified during a public hearing before the state Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee of Energy, Utilities and Technology in regard to LD 1892, an “Act to Make Changes to the So-Called Dig Safe Law." Submitted by state Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, the law would require liquefied propane gas lines be covered under Maine’s Dig Safe Law. Sen. Russell Black, R-Franklin, of Wilton, and Rep. H. Scott Landry Jr., D-Farmington, co-sponsored the bill.
Six other firefighters including Bell’s brother, Chief Terry Bell, were seriously or critically injured. Three of the firefighters have returned to work while three others are still recovering. LEAP maintenance supervisor Larry Lord of Jay was also critically injured. He was listed in fair condition Wednesday at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston where he has been for the past four months. About 30 residents in nearby homes and businesses were also displaced in the blast.
“Dig Safe Laws” prohibit digging around certain underground utility lines. In Maine, liquefied propane gas lines are not covered, according to a statement from Berry.
State fire investigators have concluded their investigation and it is anticipated they will release their findings Thursday. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s inspection of four businesses remains open.
Flannery testified that the explosion “was caused when a bollard was augured into place, slicing open the underground propane line at the LEAP facility,” according to her written testimony.
The propane line ran under the parking lot from the propane tank to the building.
“This leak caused hundreds of gallons of propane to seep into the ground, eventually finding its way into the basement of the building. According to the Office of the State Fire Marshal, where the propane line was located had been a point of contention when the bollards were placed. If propane lines were reportable to Dig Safe, they could have called and obtained this information,” Flannery wrote.
The propane tank at the back of LEAP’s parking lot had been filled with about 400 gallons of propane on Sept. 13 and was empty Sept. 16. Lord is credited with saving the lives of several LEAP employees by making sure they were out of the building before reporting the smell of propane. Firefighters arrived to investigate, and minutes later the building exploded.
Landry testified that the bollard was placed next to the building to protect an exterior heating unit.
“Dig Safe was not contacted prior to drilling because an LPG line is not covered by current laws,” according to his written testimony. “If it was an electric line, a water line or even a sewer line, the contractor would have been required to contact Dig Safe and this tragedy would have been prevented.”
The bill has been introduced twice before, in the 126th Legislature as LD 1647 and the 128th session as LD 405, according to Landry.
"Both times it failed to pass as the result of lobbying,” Landry testified.
Maine Fire Marshal Joseph Thomas, the Maine Public Utilities Commission and others testified in support of the bill’s passage, while others were against it. Testimony was done verbally and submitted in writing.
Thomas testified that the Fire Marshal’s Office is a “strong advocate of safety measures that are enacted with the intention of keeping our citizens safe.”
State law provides for the protection of underground facilities and is the foundation of the Dig Safe Law, he testified.
“By protecting the underground facilities, it not only provides the protection of the utility, but the public as well,” according to Thomas’ testimony. “Recent events have illustrated how an excavation operation can result in tragic results. The explosion of the LEAP Inc. facility in Farmington is a clear example of what can result from a breach of an LP gas line that is below ground.”
He continued, “Had a formal Dig Safe assessment been done, clearly marking the location of the supply line, the breaching of the LP gas supply line could have been avoided and the subsequent gas leak that led up to the explosion that claimed the life of a fire captain, seriously injured six other firefighters and critically injured the facilities maintenance man, and destroyed the LEAP Inc. facility with damage to other nearby properties, would not have happened,” Thomas testified.
Leslie Anderson, president and chief executive officer of the Propane Gas Association of New England, testified in writing against the bill and urged lawmakers to vote against it.
“Propane is a federally approved clean fuel. Propane is not a greenhouse gas, it is not harmful to soil or water so it is an environmentally green choice for businesses and homes,” she wrote and included other positive factors of propane.
Most of the Maine members of the association are family owned and many of them are small local businesses.
“This bill seeks to expand the jurisdiction of the PUC beyond its federal jurisdiction and it would create a rule that does not exist in any other state,” she wrote. Anderson said she works throughout New England and no other New England state has a requirement that sites be registered beyond those regulated” under federal guidelines.
In preparation for the meeting, she polled other association heads for the rest of the U.S. through the national association and no other state has a law like the one proposed in this bill, according to her testimony.
“Maine businesses should not be subjected to unnecessary rules and regulatory costs,” she wrote. “Our industry conducts numerous outreach training activities throughout the state to educate excavators about propane systems and how to avoid propane lines,” according to Anderson.
Mark Anderson, safety manager for Dead River Co., a Maine owned company, also urged the committee not to pass the bill. He testified that propane systems are unique and safer when compared to other products that are covered by the Dig Safe rules.
“Propane is not connected to a long pipe. Each propane system is connected to a unique tank and each tank has a shut off valve,” according to his testimony. “If a propane line is ever hit by an excavator, unlike water lines and natural gas lines, a propane tank is located in the immediate vicinity and each tank can easily be turned off. That makes propane installations much safer from a (Dig Safe) perspective. Because propane tanks are either obvious above-ground installations or
obvious underground tank stations sticking up above the ground, propane facilities are obvious to see and determine where there is a line running from the tank to the regulator on the outside of the building.”
He wrote that Dead River Co. has over 200 jurisdictional propane accounts currently registered with Dig Safe. In 2019, they had over 5,000 Dig Safe tickets, averaging 19 a day.
The way that LD 1892 is currently written, it is estimated over 10,000 commercial accounts would be required to be registered with Dig Safe. “Based on our 2019
Dig Safe tickets, this would amount to over 250,000 additional tickets, or 961 a day average, just for Dead River Company if this bill were to pass,” Anderson wrote. They would also have to hire more employees to respond and register Dig Safe facilities, according to Anderson’s testimony.
“This expansion of (Dig Safe) rules to include propane facilities and increase fines costs Maine businesses and our customers, and in our opinion, does not necessarily protect public safety,” he wrote.
Flannery urged lawmakers to pass the law and send a message to the propane companies and the citizens of Maine that this tragedy was enough.
“My father’s death was enough. Enough to bring about positive change that will protect countless others going forward against the danger of allowing the propane industry to be exempt from Dig Safe,” according to Flannery’s written testimony.
©2020 the Sun Journal (Lewiston, Maine)