FRESNO, Calif. (CN) – The first of several expected lawsuits against PG&E was filed less than a week after a natural gas pipeline exploded in Fresno and injured nearly a dozen people.
Sam Ouk sued Pacific Gas & Electric Co., and filed a claim against Fresno County the same day.
“We’ve done some preliminary investigation, but obviously we haven’t been able to get much so far,” Ouk’s attorney Butch Wagner told Courthouse News.
“PG&E and other people who could be responsible are already working on this and securing their evidence. One of the reasons we filed as soon as we did is so that we can get the information we need.”
The April 17 explosion sent 11 people to the hospital, including Fresno County Jail inmates, two deputies and a county employee who was operating a tractor along a dirt road near the pipeline.
The California Public Utilities Commission, PG&E, and the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office are investigating, but so far it is not clear who or what is responsible for the blast.
According to the sheriff’s office, the county employee was using a front end loader to spread piles of soil at the Fresno County Sheriff’s Foundation Gun Range when the gas line ruptured and ignited a fire.
The operator was not digging or excavating at the time of the explosion, the sheriff’s office said.
But PG&E said in a statement that the worker struck the 12-inch pipeline and the gas ignited. The company said that no call had been placed to 811, the toll-free service to mark and locate underground utilities, before the work began.
“Something caused that gas line to explode,” Wagner said. “Logic just tells you instantly it’s either someone causing something to intrude on the pipeline or it was the pipeline itself, or a combination of the two.”
Wagner said that PG&E will likely claim that the county worker operating the backhoe nicked the pipeline.
“Even if that’s true, the pipeline needs to be constructed in such a manner that it won’t explode upon getting nicked. It needs to be constructed in such a way that it’s not going to explode on such a rather common occurrence,” Wagner said. “There’s a distinct possibility that the pipeline was not constructed well to begin with, not maintained very well, and not dug in deeply enough.”
According to PG&E, a survey of the pipeline in 2013 showed there was approximately 40 inches of cover between the pipe and the surface, which meets PG&E standards and federal code.
Wagner was skeptical, noting that the backhoe was not likely to be digging down 40 inches.
“Witnesses have already told me that the backhoe was just out there flattening the road. It was not digging. That gives me some significant suspicion that PG&E had a pipeline out there that was not sufficiently maintained, constructed, or buried far enough to avoid such a catastrophe as this,” Wagner said.
The county might not be responsible, he added.
“If the backhoe worker was digging – although evidence shows he was not – the county had the obligation to inform PG&E that digging was going to occur, and that did not happen. The county would be liable if the guy was digging or in the event that the county did something before that day to weaken the integrity of the surface,” Wagner said.
A lawsuit cannot be filed against Fresno County until the county rejects the claim, which it has six months to do.
“All the investigations are still ongoing with respect to the explosion of the PG&E gas line out at the sheriff’s range and we don’t have any comment beyond that with respect to any claims,” Fresno County Counsel Dan Cedarborg told Courthouse News.
PG&E spokesperson Denny Boyles told Courthouse News that “the incident is still under investigation.”
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