The Greenwood explosion comes as Puget Sound Energy has pushed for more than a decade to improve its safety practices under the microscope of state regulators.
The blast that shredded two Greenwood buildings and injured nine firefighters early Wednesday was the worst explosion involving Puget Sound Energy (PSE), the state’s largest natural-gas utility, in a dozen years.
Investigators searching through the wreckage haven’t revealed the source of the explosion. But if the gas ignited from a leaky pipeline, it could be a blow to PSE, which has pushed for more than a decade to improve its safety practices under the microscope of state regulators.
“We really don’t know anything as far as the source,” said Anna Gill, a spokeswoman for Washington’s Utilities and Transportation Commission. “We’re considering everything.” A spokesman for Puget Sound Energy said it will put to use any lessons it learns from the Greenwood investigation to improve its operations.
In terms of injuries, the explosion was the most serious since a September 2004 blast in Bellevue incinerated a home and killed the owner. The utility settled with her family for $8 million.
PSE’s reported gas leaks have fallen in recent years, according to federal data, as state regulators required the utility to replace some of its most vulnerable pipes and overhaul the way it responds to leaks.
The utility reported 872 hazardous gas leaks on service lines that connect to homes and businesses in 2014, the most recent year available, down from 946 in 2010. Most of the leaks were caused by people puncturing gas lines while digging; gas that escaped through corroded service lines fell to 28 in 2014, down from 49 five years earlier.
“I know they had some problems,” Carl Weimer, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, in Bellingham, said of PSE. “My sense of it is they’ve had most of it taken care of.”
In 2003, state pipeline officials inspected PSE’s facilities in King and Pierce counties and found numerous violations of requirements to inspect and replace corroded pipelines. In 2004, a badly corroded pipeline operated by the utility leaked gas that filled the Bellevue home of Frances Schmitz, 68, and ignited, killing her.
In 2005, an anonymous caller alerted state regulators that a PSE contractor was falsifying records related to inspecting natural-gas leaks. The utility later replaced the contractor.
The state’s investigations resulted in a series of settlements with PSE. The utility agreed in 2005 to replace all of its steel pipes that lacked a coating to resist corrosion, which it completed in 2014. It agreed to gather more data on pipes that had been installed at least five years before any protective coating had been applied, as had been the case in the Bellevue explosion. And in 2008, PSE paid a $1.25 million fine for the fraudulent gas-leak reports, the largest penalty the state has imposed on a natural-gas distributor.
The utility’s regulatory woes weren’t over. After a 2011 pipeline explosion in the Pinehurst neighborhood destroyed a home and injured the couple inside, state regulators fined PSE $275,000 and required it to evaluate its public-awareness program and emergency plans for gas leaks.
PSE agreed to have its safety practices audited by a third party. The auditing firm, Jacobs Engineering, made 61 distinct recommendations and concluded by the end of 2012 that all of them had been implemented or were in progress.
“There has been a change in the culture of [Puget Sound Energy] since the audit initially was undertaken,” according to a report prepared by David Berger Associates, a consultant to the Utilities and Transportation Commission. That shift was more pronounced among executives, the report noted.
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“The officer and director level of PSE were very emphatic that the new owners were very committed to safety via communications and deeds while the field level said they did not see any change from before the audit or the old ownership,” the report said. The utility’s parent company, Puget Energy, was acquired for $7.4 billion in 2009 by infrastructure investors including Macquarie Group funds and the Canadian Pension Plan Investment Board.
While PSE has made strides in compliance, its recent record has a few blemishes.
In a September inspection report, the Utilities and Transportation Commission identified four probable violations and another area of concern.
In one case, the state found no records indicating that PSE had been examining a pipe for corrosion — as required — for a line inside a bridge over Interstate 5 in North Seattle. The company responded that it soon after inspected the pipe, finding no corrosion, but that it was investigating why “certain locations have not been inspected for atmospheric corrosion.” The company planned to begin inspections on other sites in November.
The state also identified problems with PSE’s maps, gas-leak documentation and other records — issues the company was working to correct.
Andy Wappler, a PSE spokesman, praised the individual who phoned in the gas leak early Wednesday, a move he said may have saved lives. “All of these incidents are serious,” he said. “Thank goodness it was not worse than it was.”