Posts Tagged ‘Missouri Gas Energy’

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.


Mark McDonald, checking for gas leaks in Boston

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.

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The Kansas City Star assigned a team of four outstanding reporters to the JJ’s explosion story Wednesday, and they established facts that pointed fingers of blame at two companies, a city agency and one big-city mayor.

Let’s be clear: These are maddening, infuriating fingers of blame.

Waitress Megan Cramer should not be dead; more than a dozen other people should not have been injured; JJ’s should still be intact.

Clearly, this was a disaster and tragedy that occurred because no one, NO ONE, made COMMON-SENSE decisions in the presence of a strong smell of gas…a smell that permeated the immediate area for MORE THAN AN HOUR before Tuesday’s explosion.

OK, so which individuals and entities shoulder the blame and why?

Investigative reporters Judy Thomas and Mike McGraw, energy reporter Steve Everly and City Hall reporter Lynn Horsley laid out the prosecution’s case in their story, and the four defendants seem to have little defense.

Let’s consider the defendants in the order that they screwed up…

1) Heartland Midwest LLC.  Shall we just call them The Mad Diggers?

Using a trenchless, horizontal boring machine, the Time Warner subcontractor managed to bore into a two-inch gas line that serviced JJ’s.

The Star’s story said that before digging, Heartland officials called Missouri One-Call, a nonprofit organization set up by utilities to help excavators and utilities dig in compliance with safety laws. The story doesn’t say what, if anything, Missouri One-Call did in response to the Heartland call, so that part of the story remains up in the air. Missouri One-Call could end up sharing blame.

2) Missouri Gas Energy. It will be a long, long time before this company regains any credibility.

How could MGE workers not recognize this was an extremely dangerous situation?



With damning impact, The Star interviewed the president of the North American Gas Workers Association, a safety advocacy group based in Massachusetts.

The official, Mark McDonald, told The Star, “It should have taken three minutes (to shut off gas to the area), and the building wouldn’t have exploded.” He said a shutoff valve to the restaurant could have been closed soon after utility workers arrived, which was nearly an hour before the explosion.

3) The Kansas City Fire Department. Asleep at the wheel.

A truck arrived on the scene at 5:04 p.m., about 10 minutes after Heartland reported the leak.

Fire Chief Paul Berardi said that firefighters conferred with MGE workers and that the workers assured the fire crew that they had the situation under control.

“We left the situation in their hands,” Berardi said, “We have to leave that up to the experts at the scene.”

What? WHAT? Like the fire department doesn’t know anything about the hazards of natural gas?

And when, by the way, does the fire department defer to anyone? When there’s distinct danger in the air, the fire department has a responsibility to act.

On Tuesday, KCFD was the public’s strongest representative at the scene. The crew captain or battalion chief — whoever was in charge when that first truck arrived — could have, should have, said, “This doesn’t smell good to me…Let’s check this out a little further.”

4. Mayor Sly James. Like the fire department, he abdicated his duty to the public on Wednesday.

In a morning news conference, James deflected questions about who might be to blame, saying that simply that an investigation was underway.

“Now I understand everybody wants to know what happened, wants to blame somebody,” James said. “Everybody wants to know these details, but let me just assure you that’s not going to happen today.”


Mayor Slay James and Fire Chief Paul Berardi

That statement was OK, as far as it went. But the situation begged for much, much more.

What he should have added, emphatically, is something like this: “I assure you we are going to get to the bottom of this. This tragedy has raised plenty of questions, and I am going to make sure that every question is answered. We will let the chips fall where they may.”

Remember when the skywalks at the Hyatt collapsed, killing 113 people?

The day after it occurred (maybe the second day), Mayor Richard Berkley stood up to Don Hall, Hallmark and other deep-pocketed, vested interests and called for a federal investigation. Then-Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton got involved and a full-scale investigation got underway almost immediately.

Berkley didn’t say, “Let me assure you that (the search for answers) is not going to happen today.”


James’s attitude is going to have to change, and quickly. The public will demand it. What James didn’t seem to take into account yesterday was the anger that was, and is, coming to a boil.

The Star reporters showed us exactly what that looks like when they quoted the executive director of a foundation that has offices immediately north of JJ’s.

“I’m really, really angry,” said Gayla Brockman. “I honestly don’t get it.”

She smelled the gas slightly more than an hour before the explosion, and it was so strong that it nauseated her.

People with Heartland Midwest, MGE and the fire department smelled gas, too…Why didn’t any of them act quickly, in the interests of public safety? 

And why wasn’t Mayor James demanding answers the day after a tragedy that will not soon be forgotten?

I want to know. And my fellow Kansas Citians want to know.

And there must be accountability.

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