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.

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Propane Distributor Linked to More Odorless Propane

A new state report shows DCP Midstream, which distributed the unodorized propane that caused a deadly Norfolk condo explosion, also shipped dangerous propane to four gas facilities serving Massachusetts consumers.

The report was released by Attorney General Martha Coakley and State Fire Marshal Stephen Coan last week. It found DCP Midstream distributed under-odorized propane to four sites associated with Heritage Propane in Sandwich and Martha’s Vineyard. DCP Midstream also had unodorized propane in five railcars at its Westfield facility. Federal and state laws require propane to have an additive known as mercaptan, which emits a strong odor.

The report was prepared this fall by an independent propane expert. Prior to the investigation, state investigators had found six other distributors in Massachusetts received deficient propane.

On July 13, a 48-year-old electrician was killed in a condominium explosion at The Village at River’s Edge in Norfolk, Massachusetts. The complex had received unodorized propane distributed by DCP Midstream. There was a propane leak, but none of the workers at the scene that day were able to smell propane.

“We applaud the swift investigation by the Attorney General’s office, and the findings of the Independent Examiner,” said Marc Breakstone, the attorney for the electrician’s family. “But this report does not answer the question of how odorless gas ended up in the environment at the explosion site. Only time and extensive discovery will reveal the truth about how this catastrophic explosion occurred.”

State officials say the affected companies have all addressed the deficient propane. Independent testing will continue at DCP Midstream’s facility for two years.

DCP Midstream began distributing the dangerous propane in Massachusetts in May 2010. The propane originated with Aux Sable Liquid Products of Illinois.

Click here to read the Attorney General’s press release on the report about DCM Midstream’s propane deliveries.

Click here for propane safety tips.
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