NorthWestern Energy Has Not Accepted Responsibility for Blast Site Clean Up

Says Responsibility Has "Transitioned" to Other Parties.

By Pat Hill

Three months after a natural gas explosion
devastated downtown Bozeman, business owners, city officials, and Bozeman residents are hopeful that cleanup at the blast site will proceed soon. Cleanup was expected to begin at the beginning of June, according to Bozeman City Manager Chris Kukulski, but he also said there "is no firm timeline I'm aware of." Kukulski told the Pioneer a cleanup contract has been awarded to Montana Ready Mix of Bozeman. Ready Mix owner Greg Poncelet told the Pioneer on May 29 that although cleanup is imminent, buildings on either side of the blast sight must be sufficiently shored up by other contractors before cleanup can begin.

"I expect it'll be a couple more weeks before we
get in there, but once we do, it'll go good,"
said Poncelet.

It's been a long ordeal. By March 13,
investigators determined that the March 5
explosion was caused by a natural gas leak from a separated NorthWestern Energy service line between the main gas line and the meter for Montana Trails Art Gallery on East Main Street in the heart of downtown Bozeman. That business was destroyed by the blast, and 36-year-old Tara Reistad Bowman, who was working in the gallery that morning, was killed in the explosion.

Boodles restaurant, Lilly Lu's children's store,
and Tolstedt Architects were also taken out by
the blast, and adjoining businesses including the Rocking R Bar, the Pickle Barrel restaurant, and the Legion Hall were heavily damaged. Though still standing, the Rocky Mountain Rug Gallery and Starky's Authentic Delicatessen also sustained significant damage in the disaster. A mountain of charred debris choked Main Street and blocked traffic for weeks after the blast. And for three months now, the debris has sat on the premises of the destroyed businesses, creating a smell and an eyesore that has been a blight on downtown Bozeman.

"This is by far the worst incident we've ever had
to deal with," NorthWestern Energy's Claudia
Rapkoch told the Pioneer on May 20 during an open house event at NorthWestern's community outreach office on East Main, across the street from the blast site. "We operate in three states. There's been nothing of this magnitude."

Some Bozemanites have wondered why NorthWestern Energy has not cleaned up the mess downtown. NorthWestern, though, has not accepted responsibility. Rapkoch said that while NorthWestern's service line may have been the source of the natural gas that caused the explosion, that doesn't make the company
responsible for the cleanup downtown.

"Things have transitioned to the business owners and insurers," she said. "That [downtown] property is private property."

Rapkoch added that NorthWestern is still investi-gating what caused their service line to separate, noting that the service line in question has been sent to a lab for metallurgical testing.

"But we are still investigating," she said.
"Until that investigation is finished, liability
has not been established. We have already
received insurance claimsŠwe haven't accepted any, but we haven't denied any either. They're on hold until the investigation ends. I can't identify a timeline for insurance settlements."

Rapkoch added that understanding what caused the service line separation is paramount for the energy company.

"We really want to understand what happened," she said. "We've had lots of public input. Bozeman is a great community, and this has been tough for everyone."

Chris Naumann of the Downtown Bozeman Partnership told the Pioneer on May 27 that he is hopeful cleanup will begin in June.

"It certainly is a large-scale project," said
Naumann. "It's been a slow pace, but it's
complicated stuff. I'm satisfied." Naumann said a $300,000 loan the city of Bozeman has made
available for downtown business owners in May to assist with the cleanup has been "a huge help."

The funds were made available with $50,000 from the city's general fund, $50,000 from
NorthWestern Energy, $90,000 from the city's
economic development revolving loan fund, and $110,000 from the city's housing revolving loan fund.

Kukulski told the Pioneer that the city of
Bozeman sent NorthWestern Energy a letter a month or so ago asking them to foot the entire
$300,000. He said NorthWestern responded that they were "comfortable" with their $50,000
contribution for the present time. NorthWestern's failure to take responsibility, though, has not gone unnoticed.

"People are afraid to push them," Mike Hope, vice president of operations at the Rocking R Bar, told the Pioneer. "I think they've got more
political clout than they should. But they're not
going to wear us down. I still think NorthWestern Energy has an obligation to pay up."

"For good reasons, people have decided who is ultimately responsible," said Kukulski. "People are presuming [NorthWestern] is liable. But we have to go through a lengthy legal process to determine if those assumptions are correct. If NorthWestern determines they are liable, I'm certain they will step up."

Naumann agrees with Kukulski's assertion that Northwestern "will step up."

"They've made themselves available so far,"
Naumann said. "They've helped with community efforts, and [NorthWestern CEO] Bob Rowe has been more than available."

"NorthWestern hasn't called us to ask us how
we're doing," said Hope. "That'd be the
neighborly thing. But the city and our elected
officials have been great to work with. We live
in a great community. We've got to get to the
bottom of this and move forward. But there's one thing I've learned from all of this. There's no hard timeline, there always seems to be a snag somewhere."

A "Healing Celebration" is scheduled for Sunday, May 31, in downtown Bozeman. The Gallatin Valley Interfaith Association will conduct the event, set to begin at 4:00 p.m. at the site of the downtown tragedy. In addition to helping the community cope, the event is also a celebration of the life and legacy of the historic downtown neighborhood, according to a press release issued by the Downtown Bozeman Partnership. The celebration will begin with healing walks that will start in several designated city parks.

These processions will provide neighbors and
friends the opportunity to walk downtown to the
gathering, according to the press release.
"We certainly appreciate the community's
patience," said Kukulski. "All the reasons you
loved downtown last summer are still there, like Music on Main. We really encourage folks to get downtown."








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