Norfolk Propane Gas Explosion Leads to Federal Safety Alert

As a direct result of our client’s tragic death, a leading federal agency has issued a safety alert regarding nationwide measures to prevent catastrophic propane gas explosions.

On July 17, 2013, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) published a national safety alert in the Federal Register which warns the public of the risks associated with under-odorization of Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG). It also advises shippers and carriers on recommended procedures for ensuring that LPG is properly odorized on all modes of transportation.

The PHMSA called the Norfolk gas explosion which killed Nichols and injured seven others the “most notable” of cases it considered.

On July 30, 2010, William Nichols, a 47-year-old electrician was working in the basement of an unfinished condominium at The Village at River’s Edge when it exploded. The structure was demolished. Nichols was buried under burning debris for 70 minutes and suffered burns over 80 percent of his body before he was rescued. Emergency workers responded from 21 nearby cities and towns. He died later that night at a Boston hospital.

The Nichols family was represented by attorney Marc L. Breakstone, of Breakstone, White & Gluck of Boston. In the lawsuit, the Nichols’ family alleged that EnergyUSA had negligently under-filled a new propane tank in the condominium development, causing the chemical odor which had been added to the propane to fade and become undetectable. When a loose fitting on the plumbing caused odorless propane gas to leak into the basement, Nichols and others were unaware of the extreme danger of working in the structure. When a hot water heater pilot ignited, the house exploded in a ball of flames. The remaining structure caved in on Mr. Nichols who was trapped in burning debris for over an hour.

During the litigation, Breakstone discovered that the propane supply company had intentionally under-filled the storage tank to save around $2,000. As a result of this, the chemical odorant in the gas faded out making the leaking gas undetectable.

The family settled its wrongful death lawsuit with EnergyUSA Propane and Smolinsky Brothers Plumbing and Heating for $7.5 million.

New Recommendations
Injection process. LPG is odorized through manual and automated injection. When it is odorized by manual means, the PHMSA recommends quality control checks be conducted. It recommends periodic equipment checks when LPG is odorized through automated means.

New tanks or freshly cleaned tanks. The PHMSA recommends those who fill LPG tanks use quality control measures that ensure LPG has sufficient odorant when it is delivered to end users. It also recommends people who receive new or recently cleaned propane tanks be notified.

Odorization standards. PHMSA recommends that all LPG transported in rail tank car tanks or cylinders be odorized in accordance with the requirements of § 173.315(b)(1), of the Hazardous Materials Regulations, issued by the Department of Transportation.

Read the regulations here.

About Breakstone, White & Gluck
Breakstone White & Gluck has over 100 years of combined experience successfully representing the seriously injured. To learn more, visit our website at

Gas Explosions: More than 3,300 Gas Leaks in Boston

fire.jpgThere are more than 3,300 natural gas leaks in Boston’s aging underground pipelines, a new Boston University study has found. Six areas had gas levels which exceeded the amount needed to trigger a gas explosion.

Those gas leaks were repaired while no action has been taken on the others, which the state Department of Public Utilities and gas companies described as a small risk for gas explosions. Dorchester had the largest number of gas leaks, 951 breaks over 158 miles of cast-iron gas mains. However, several areas had a greater number of leaks per mile, including East Boston, Jamaica Plain, Brighton, Charlestown and South Boston.

The study into gas leaks and explosion risks was conducted by an associated professor from Boston University’s Department of Earth and Environment and a researcher from Duke University. It was recently published in the journal Environmental Pollution and reported on by the Boston Globe.

The two researchers drove all 785 miles of Boston’s streets to test the air for methane, the primary ingredient in natural gas. The two measured for methane levels which exceeded 2 parts per million – the normal amount in the air.

Natural gas is colorless and odorless, but uses the chemical additive mercaptan which emits a distinct rotten eggs odor to signal a leak. Gas leaks can occur in several ways, often when underground pipes crack as they age or in cold weather or when a pipe is struck by construction equipment.

Some people want to hold gas companies more accountable for fixing gas leaks in Massachusetts. A bill sponsored by state Representative Lori Ehrlich of Marlbehead would require a timeline for fixing the most serious leaks. Utilities would be required to notify police and fire of the gas leak locations. The bill unanimously passed the House of Representatives in June and is now before the state Senate.

The Conservation Law Foundation plans to release a report on natural gas leaks soon. An official suggested the state could require timelines for gas companies to repair various grades of leaks and improve accelerated reimbursement rates for gas companies that replace old gas lines.


Read More