• Report: Consumers Energy crews smelled gas, left minutes before Royal Oak blast


    Consumers Energy workers didn’t follow a standard procedure to steer clear of a natural gas line in Royal Oak when they used a boring process in front of a house that exploded, killing the owner and damaging 30 other houses.

    “As they are boring, they are required to dig holes at certain intervals so they can see the boring tool in relation to the utilities to make sure they don’t hit any,” utility spokesperson Debra Dodd.

    That didn’t happen Feb. 27, Dodd said of the blast that leveled the house at 4232 Cooper Ave. The crew ruptured the gas service line.

    A timeline of events released Monday says the crew reported smelling natural gas about 4:30 p.m. and knocked on the doors of the victim’s house but got no answer. The last of the workers left the work site at 5:03 p.m. — four minutes before the explosion rocked south Oakland County.

    The details of the deadly day and what went wrong are contained in a six-page summary submitted to the Michigan Public Service Commission by Consumers Energy.

    The summary released Monday by Consumers Energy says the boring crew should have excavated and exposed the utility lines prior to boring but the holes “were not completed properly.”

    The homeowner, 58-year-old Daniel Malczynski, and his dog died when the 1929 steel service line was damaged and “apparent below-grade gas” migrated to the house.

    “What’s troubling to me is they knew at 4:30 there was a leak and they left,” said attorney Stuart Sklar, who is representing the Malczynski family. “You’re not supposed to leave a gas leak unattended.”

    The crew also failed to take action to ensure the safety of nearby buildings after damaging the gas service, the report says. Dodd said she couldn’t elaborate on that part of the incident investigation.

    Sklar did.

    “It keeps getting worse,” he said. “The moment they smelled gas they had to know they hit something. Why not evacuate everyone? Why didn’t they knock on everyone’s door? Everyone who lives in this area has their lives in the hands of Consumers Energy and their disregard for safety.”

    Both union and supervisory employees involved with the boring operation on Cooper Avenue were fired. Sklar said the utility shouldn’t stop there.

    “This is not the first time their crew left the scene of a gas leak and someone died,” he said. “I don’t think they learned from the prior incident. Someone higher up than the crew needs to be held accountable.”

    Sklar declined to elaborate on the prior incident.

    Consumers Energy suspended all boring on Feb. 28 and the report says the utility took action to prevent another deadly explosion, including adding a new checklist that outlines required steps for safe operations. The utility also made sure its training records for personnel are up to date, reviewed procedure requirements with all crews, and assigned independent field inspectors to each construction job to verify all safety steps are followed.

    Boring resumed in stages from March 7-18 for contract workers and utility employees.

    Consumers Energy also is developing plans to sample projects to make sure the process of excavating and exposing utilities meets depth and minimum clearance requirements and allows for “direct observation” for damage where appropriate.

    “Consumers Energy recognizes the seriousness of this incident and will continue to cooperate with the ongoing investigation conducted by the MPSC and other involved parties,” according to the update signed by Tracy A. Goble, Consumers Energy manager of regulatory compliance.

    In an attachment, the utility gives a sequence of events with approximate times. The summary says two boring support crews with a total of four people arrived on Cooper Avenue from 7:39-8:12 a.m. Feb. 27 to do preparatory work to install a new gas main along the east side of the street.

    A boring crew with three people arrived with equipment between 11:06 and 11:26 a.m. Underground work began two houses south of 4232 Cooper about 1 p.m. and extended north about 370 feet under the existing sidewalk, “crossing active gas services” on the street.

    Crew members reported smelling natural gas about 4:30 p.m. Two crew leaders checked gas levels in the ground near the sidewalk. One crew leader knocked on the doors of the victim’s house but got no response.

    A crew leader called Consumers Energy dispatch to report a gas leak at 4:57 p.m. The dispatcher notified a gas service worker to respond.

    The boring crew left at 4:58 p.m. The support crews left one to three minutes after 5 p.m. The explosion occurred at 5:07 p.m. while the gas service worker was on the way there.

    A Consumers Energy manager arrived first – about 5:15 p.m. -- after feeling the utility’s service center building in Royal Oak “shake and observing smoke to the west.”

    When the gas service worker arrived about 5:29 p.m., Royal Oak police and firefighters were at the scene. A Consumers Energy distribution crew left Oak Park about 5:40 p.m. The gas supply to 4232 Cooper was shut off about 6:36 p.m.

    Gas and electrical service then was cut to neighboring homes on Cooper and Elmwood avenues. Gas leak surveys were done and residents were evacuated. After pressure testing of customer fuel lines, gas service was restored between Feb. 28 and March 2.

    A restoration contractor was hired to clean up debris scattered through the neighborhood but not at the explosion site.

    Consumers Energy continues to conduct mobile leak surveys of Cooper and Elmwood on a weekly basis.

    “To date, Consumers Energy has been responsive and transparent in its communications activities related to this tragic accident,” the update to the MPSC says. “Several communications have been provided to both media and employees, reiterating the company’s commitment to safety and the zero-tolerance policy toward unsafe work practices.”

    Sklar said the state Legislature should get involved.

    “You’re dealing with the lives of the public,” he said. “We need stricter oversight of the gas companies and stricter penalties if they are so reckless.”

    State Rep. Jim Townsend (D-Royal Oak) said last week he will work with the MPSC to draft regulations that protect the public and try to determine the best way to replace pipelines.

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