The two posts in which I have held the city’s and the gas company’s feet to the fire for the way they handled (or didn’t) the JJ’s disaster last week have generated many comments and lots of interest.
A key person who just weighed in today, with two lengthy comments on the first post, was Mark McDonald, president of the North American Gas Workers Association.
Some of you will recall it was McDonald who told The Star:
“It should have taken three minutes (to shut off gas to the area), and the building wouldn’t have exploded.”
With those few words, McDonald voiced the frustration that thousands of Kansas Citians were feeling about Missouri Gas Energy’s response to the situation, as well as the failure of the gas company and the Kansas City Fire Department to evacuate people from the area before the blast.
People reported that a strong smell of gas permeated the area for an hour before the explosion, which killed one person, waitress Megan Cramer, and injured 15.
In today’s comments (which you can see in their entirety at the bottom of my Feb. 21 post), McDonald responded to another commenter’s call for him to elaborate on his original statement. He also responded to a commenter who accused me of playing “the blame game.”
Below, I have culled what I consider the most interesting and pertinent quotes from his two comments.
:: Regarding the commenter’s call for elaboration on shutting off gas valves…
I agree with your points about my statement being somewhat confusing to the lay person/public…I explained in length (to the reporter) and extensively about what should be available to shut down a gas leak of this magnitude…The reporters-editors decide what to write, and to what extent they decide makes enough sense to the average reader. Space in the newspaper is (at) a premium.
I will elaborate here…The gas could have been turned off at what’s known as a “critical valve” or primary valve. These are required to be in place and inspected annually under state and federal regulations to ensure they are accessible…to prevent such a disaster at JJ’s.
My understanding is the crew decided to dig a vent hole to help the gas vent into the air, instead of shutting down the critical valve. After the explosion, it appears the company had to dig out one valve at one end of the street and dig down to the main and crimp off the other end.
I hope that helps a bit. I also must point out that my comments are based on industry standards and requirements/regulations and what information I can confirm from the incident itself. I am not on-site or involved in the direct investigation, but I believe my comments were accurate in this case.
Keep in mind, when something like this happens, the media is full of questions without many answers. When asked, I try to educate the reporter on the technical basics of natural gas and what I believe are the possibilities, based on dozens of other gas explosions around the nation.
My overall goal is to ensure that information that is as accurate as possible gets out to the public — sooner than a year or so from now…when the PSC (Missouri Public Service Commission) releases its final report of its findings.
Questions need to be asked and answered soon after the explosion. The public and the loved ones of those lost and injured deserve at least that.
:: Regarding another commenter’s assertion about “the blame game” and the location of shut-off valves…
If you read the state and federal regulations, it does state the location of such valves shall be positioned for a shutdown in case of an emergency, and it also states the “pressure” is one of the things to be considered when spacing these valves.
If it (the shut-off valve) is blocks away from the leak…it sounds like the company may not have placed the valve correctly in terms of safely shutting down a high pressure system.
The other factor here is (that) “main” valves used (to) be located at the end of each street (or every few blocks on longer streets)…and maintained. In my opinion, since de-regulation the gas companies have reduced their staffing by over 20 percent, while gas customers have grown by more than 20 percent.
The companies looking to cut back on costs could not maintain the main valves, nor were they directly required to by regulation. So, they were often paved over and not installed in newer installations.
Placing hundreds or even thousands of customers on one “critical/primary” valve is quite dangerous…The PSC (Public Service Commission) does take an extra step on the federal regulation requiring critical valves (to) be spaced so that a shutdown can be re-lit within eight hours.
Based on this incident and some comments here, it (the PSC) needs to go much further, especially on high-pressure gas, since it sounds like the company can’t control their own gas when it leaks.
Many thanks to Mark McDonald for elaborating on his understanding of the situation at JJ’s.
Everything he has said, as well as a strong feeling in my gut, has convinced me that the JJ’s explosion could have been avoided and that, at the very least, the area should have been evacuated.
If JJ’s would had exploded without any injuries or loss of life, most of us would have said, “That was a big fire.” Few people, except maybe Jimmy and David Frantze, would have questioned so strongly what responders were doing during the hour before that horrible explosion.