How Could This Happen?
And Who’s to Blame?
By Pat Hill
The fuel source for a catastrophic natural gas explosion in downtown Bozeman last month has been pinned down, but many specifics regarding the incident have not been revealed, leaving some wondering if the disaster could have been avoided, or if it could happen again.
At about 8:15 a.m. on March 5, a large explosion downtown was followed within minutes by the sounds of sirens and the sight of huge clouds of smoke billowing into the sky. Boodles restaurant, Montana Trails Gallery, LillyLu's children's store, Tolstedt Architects and the American Legion Hall were destroyed in the explosion and ensu-ing fire that burned for days. Other businesses severely damaged in the blast area include the Rocking R Bar, the Pickle Barrel restaurant (inside the Rocking R), the Rocky Mountain Rug Gallery, and Starky's Authentic Delicatessen. Thirty-six-year-old Tara Bowman, who was working in the Montana Trails Gallery when the explosion occurred, was killed in the blast.
In an initial criminal investi-gation, conducted by the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, in conjunction with the Bozeman Police and Fire Depart-ments, it was determined that the explosion was fueled by natural gas leaked from a damaged underground service line owned by NorthWestern Energy.
"There was a physical separation, almost like a break in the line," NorthWestern Energy spokesperson Claudia Rapkoch told the Associated Press. "This was not a pinhole leak."
“The leak allowed natural gas to migrate through the soil under the hard surfaces of the alley and enter buildings at an undetermined location,” Bozeman Fire Chief Jason Shrauger told the assembled business owners and citizens at a March 13 public meeting and press conference in Bozeman, after the criminal investigation into the incident had been wrapped up. “The cause of the failure of the service line has not been determined. Multiple potential ignition sources were identified.”
The service line in question was two inches in diameter and ran between the main line in the north alley of the 200 block of East Main Street and the Montana Trails Gallery service meter behind that establishment. When and how that service line was damaged is key in understanding what took place that morning, but neither city nor federal officials said they had the answer to that question at the March 13 public meeting. Neither did NorthWestern Energy. And Bozeman City Manager Chris Kukulski said the results of the investigation are considered confidential criminal infor-mation that can't be released to the public without consent from a District Court judge.
“I acknowledge there was a severance in the service line,” said NorthWestern Energy President and CEO Bob Roe, also in atten-dance at the public meeting. “How was the line severed? How did the gas pool? I don't know.”
Roe declined to speculate further on the explosion, saying it was up to the teams looking into the now-civil aspect of the investigation to finish their work before he could address the matter further in a public forum. The investigation is being conducted by NorthWestern Energy, and representatives of property owners and insurance companies. That work is progressing slowly, but Kukulski said on March 28 that investigators informed the city that cleanup at the blast area could begin, according to the AP, and that property owners have until April 8 to clean up the debris.
Gas services in business areas are required by law to be inspected by the provider on a yearly basis using federal guidelines. The annual inspections by NorthWestern Energy are usually conducted after the spring thaw using high-tech "sniffers" that detect the presence of gas, Rapkoch told the AP. Roe said that such inspections of the downtown Bozeman gas infrastructure made in June of 2008 revealed no leaks, and that no problems were detected through a process NorthWestern Energy uses to prevent corrosion, which involves sending a constant, mild electrical current through the gas lines. Roe also said that a NorthWestern crew inspecting a meter behind LiliLu's only two days prior to the explosion also gave no indication of a gas leak in the immediate area. But downtown Bozeman had experienced a major gas leak within the last year and a half.
What's That Smell?
A gas leak associated with construction activity at the site of Bozeman's new downtown parking garage in August of 2007 resulted in the shutdown of an entire downtown block. That incident began when a construction crew working on the parking garage struck an “unmarked and unknown” gas line that connected to a larger pipeline, the AP reported. The entire block on the north side of Main street between Tracy and Black was evacuated after the Bozeman Fire Depart-ment determined that gas had built up to explosive levels in a building near the ruptured gas line.
NorthWestern Energy crews from Conrad, Deer Lodge and Butte came to work with a Bozeman crew to stem the gas leak, and it took 19 hours for NorthWestern Energy and Bozeman officials to declare the evacuated block safe.
Mike Noyes of Belgrade was driving through downtown Bozeman with a friend looking for a place to have lunch during the 2007 inci-dent. “It smelled so bad we just got the hell out of Dodge,” Noyes told the Pioneer. That distinctive smell is caused by an odorant called Mercaptan that is added to the odorless natural gas in order to easily detect leaks. Noyes said that by the time he and his friend reached their destination, five minutes or so after changing their minds about a downtown lunch stop, they heard that the area had already been evacuated, so Noyes didn't report the incident as he had intended.
“On the morning of the [March 5] explosion, through the investi-gation we did determine that people did smell gas in the area of East Main, but nobody called [NorthWestern Energy]. Nobody called 911,” said Detective Mark Lacha-pelle, of the Bozeman Police Depart-ment. He stressed the importance of the public's role in calling authorities to report gas leaks.
Since the explosion, the Bozeman Fire Department and NorthWestern Energy have responded to dozens of reports of gas smells by citizens. One Bozeman resident wishing to remain anonymous told the Pioneer she thought that Bozeman and other American cities would be better prepared to avoid natural gas explosions by being more informed about the potential danger associated with the smell of natural gas through public service announcements or bold notices sent with power bills.
“I didn't know the smell of gas could lead to such a disaster,” said the woman. “It seemed like the power company and the fire department were almost blaming the public for the explosion. The first time I ever heard of the dangers associated with the smell of natural gas, or to report it, was after the downtown explosion happened…not before.” She said she called 911 herself on March 27 after smelling gas near a business on North Seventh Avenue in Bozeman.
Investigators at the Bozeman public meeting said they don't know how long the gas causing the March 5 explosion had accumulated before people smelled it. Through more than 200 interviews, it was deter-mined that several people smelled gas a half-hour before the explosion. A few people interviewed reported smelling gas in the area four to eight weeks earlier.
“I walked in the alley [behind the blast area] quite often on my morning coffee break,” said Les Plant, a subcontractor who was working for Jalal Neishabouri, owner of the Rocky Mountain Rug Gallery. “I started smelling gas…back there a month and a half or two before the blast.” He noted that a NorthWest-ern Energy crew with a backhoe had also been working in the alley at about the same time he started smelling gas, and Plant wondered if the crew had smelled the gas. But Plant said that he never called NorthWestern Energy to report the gas smell “because it was never really that heavy,” and because the gas company had been at the scene.
“When in doubt…make that call,” said Roe.
Are We Safe?
Two major gas leaks in downtown Bozeman in the last 18 months, one resul-ting in a devastating and deadly explosion, have left many people wondering if there are more problems existing in the city's gas line system, and if North Western did all it could to address the danger.
"There's a lot of concern that [the investigation] may move too slowly to provide the comfort [the public is] looking for," Montana Public Service Commission Chairman John Vincent told the AP. "We need to know with absolute surety that the people who work downtown, live downtown, or come to shop and visit are safe."
NorthWestern Energy insists they are doing everything they can to ensure that the gas system is safe, but Roe admitted at the March 13 meeting that natural gas systems are “inherently dangerous.” He insisted, though, that the age of the system installed by Montana-Dakota Utilities in the 1930s does not contribute overtly to that danger, a claim that MDU spokesman Mark Hanson agrees with.
“There are 100-year-old pipes across the country,” Hanson told the AP. “As long as the integrity is intact through routine inspection, there are older pipes that carry gas and they are safe.”
Roe also insisted that NorthWestern Energy knows where all the downtown Bozeman gas lines are, despite indications to the contrary, such as the unknown line struck in 2007 and a questionable map of the system that complicated shutting off the gas downtown after last month's explosion.
“The map was wrong,” said Roe on March 13, but NorthWestern’s Claudia Rapkoch told the AP three days later that “we know where those lines are…the connector line in question didn't make it on the map. We are always evaluating our systems.”
NorthWestern Energy is also maintaining a website at Bozeman recovery.com that provides daily updates on the situation, answers to frequently asked questions regar-ding the explosion, and general information regarding natural gas systems.
“The only reason you work in the utility industry is because you care about what you do,” Roe said. “We care about this community. We will contribute as a company…and myself personally…to the rebuilding effort.
One day after the blast in Bozeman, another natural gas explosion involving a malfunctioning freezer in Whitehall resulted in a fire that destroyed several businesses in that small southwest Montana town between Bozeman and Butte. In the subsequent investigation following the Whitehall explosion and fire, it was determined that NorthWestern Energy bore no responsibility in that disaster. Acting on a request from Gov. Brian Schweitzer, on March 27 the Small Business Administration announced that low-interest “economic injury disaster loans” would be made available to small businesses affected in both towns. U.S. Senators Jon Tester and Max Baucus sent a letter requesting assistance from the SBA.
“Bozeman and Whitehall have begun to pick up the pieces from their tragic incidents but the businesses and local communities need assistance from the Small Business Administration to rebuild their historic downtown areas,” the letter stated. “We believe that both communities fit the criteria for assis-tance, with at least five small businesses in each disaster area having suffered substantial economic injury not covered by business interruption insurance…and in need of financial assistance not otherwise available on reasonable terms.”
Loans of up to $2 million at four percent interest, with terms up to 30 years, are available to affected businesses. SBA Disaster Loan Outreach Centers will open in Bozeman in the Downtown Bozeman Partnership office at 224 East Main, and in Whitehall the center will be based in Town Hall, 2 North Whitehall St. Both outreach centers open on April 1; the SBA will close the Bozeman center on April 9,and the Whitehall center will shut down on April 7.
Sen. Tester said on March 27 that he was pleased with the SBA's quick response to the aid request.
“I've seen with my own eyes the devastation these two disasters caused,” Tester told the AP. “On behalf of all Montanans,” he said, “I thank the folks at SBA for rushing this aid to our Main Street businesses in our hour of need.”