NorthWestern Energy Calls Bozeman Safe After Gas Blast—Promotes Scratch & Sniff
Business and Property Owners Left with Hefty Clean Up Bill
BY PAT HILL
Despite lingering fears about the safety of downtown Bozeman after a natural gas explosion destroyed several businesses and killed one person last month, NorthWestern Energy insists that downtown is safe.
“Downtown [Bozeman] is very safe…absolutely,” NorthWestern Energy spokesperson Claudia Rapkoch told the Pioneer recently, the same week the energy company announced plans to open a temporary downtown Bozeman “Recovery Office” at 308 E. Main St., across the street from the blast site.
“We're opening this temporary office in response to requests that we've received from downtown business owners and local residents for ongoing information and regular contact,“ NorthWestern Energy President and CEO Bob Rowe said in an April 23 press release. “This step is part of a broader effort to inform, educate and demonstrate our level of commitment to our customers and communities.” Along with using the office as a “meeting place for people actively engaged in the recovery process for the next several months,” NorthWestern Energy also hopes their temporary downtown location will help in educating Bozeman residents about “the city's natural gas system, including system integrity and safety programs.” Rapkoch said the temporary downtown NorthWestern Energy office will include information and displays explaining what the company does to make natural gas safe.
“We want to demonstrate how we make it safe,” said Rapkoch. She said that most of NorthWestern Energy's advertising already addresses safety concerning electricity and natural gas. Rapkoch also said the company will be sending a “scratch and sniff” enclosure with customers' June power bills to help people become more familiar with the smell of natural gas, adding that the “scratch and sniff” device worked quite well when the company used the approach several years ago.
“We have to make sure the Post Office knows what we're doing,” said Rapkoch, explaining that the Post Office called to report the smell of natural gas the last time around. “We want to make sure that the public knows what [natural gas] smells like.”
Rapkoch also said that NorthWestern Energy customers, in her experience, have “very high recollection in terms of what to do if they smell natural gas,” calling 911 or NorthWestern Energy. She couldn't explain why nobody called to report the smell of natural gas in the weeks and hours before the March 5 Bozeman blast, though numerous witnesses stated they had smelled gas after the fact during the initial investigation. But Rapkoch did dispute the report of a NorthWestern Energy backhoe crew working in the alley behind the blast site six to eight weeks before the explosion.
Les Plant, a subcontractor who was working for Jalal Neishabouri, owner of the Rocky Mountain Rug Gallery, in the months previous to the blast, told the Pioneer in March that a NorthWestern Energy crew with a backhoe had also been working in the alley about the same time he started noticing the smell of gas, “a month and a half or two before the blast.” Plant also told the Pioneer that he never called NorthWestern Energy to report the gas smell “because it was never really that heavy.”
“We had a crew there in October replacing a service line in that block…there was no work done in that alley after October,” said Rapkoch. She also said NorthWestern Energy strongly encourages people to report the smell of natural gas, heavy or not.
“We really want our customers to call,” said Rapkoch. “It's a free service. We have seen a significant increase in calls around Bozeman [since the explosion]. Most were false alarms, but a few [gas leaks] were found on either side of the meter. We want it to be safe no matter what. That's what we're here to do.”
Rapkoch also wanted to correct the record in terms of what caused a major fire in Whitehall a day after the Bozeman explosion. Initial reports indicated that an explosion also caused that fire, and the Pioneer reported that a natural gas explosion caused the fire.
“It was an explosion,” Gabi Hall, co-owner of Whitehall's Legion Street Grill, told the Associated Press in March. “It knocked me right off my chair.” Hall told the AP that she heard the loud “boom” around 11 a.m. on March. 6. But Rapkoch told the Pioneer that there was “no explosion.”
“It was a fire that started in a refrigerator,” said Rapkoch, suggesting that the sound of an explosion was possibly “a compressor on the fridge that popped.”
“That's not even close to a natural gas explosion,” said Rapkoch. Montana fire investigators were never able to determine the exact cause of the blaze. The AP reported on April 28 that a nine-page report regarding the Whitehall fire investigation “concludes with Deputy State Fire Marshal Pat Clinch's assessment that the blaze was 'an accidental fire of an undetermined origin.'”
Investigators determined that the fire started in a storage room at the Legion Street Grill, although electrical components in the storage room were too damaged to determine if they played a role in the fire. Several freezers in back of the Legion Grill were examined, and although one freezer did show more damage than the others, the cause of the blaze could not be directly tied to that freezer.
Investigators did determine that the cause of the Bozeman explosion was directly tied to a separated natural gas service line owned by NorthWestern Energy, but how and why that service line separated is still under investigation. The city of Bozeman has decided to lend affect-ed downtown business and building owners $300,000 to clean up remaining explosion debris, according to the AP, although Rocking R Bar Vice President of Operations Mike Hope said NorthWestern Energy should foot the bill.
“It was clearly [NorthWestern Energy's] pipe that blew it up,” Hope told the AP, but Rapkoch said that “From our perspective, liability is not reasonably clear…the investigation is ongoing.” NorthWestern Energy has given $50,000 to a downtown relief fund and the company also intends to contribute $50,000 to the city loan fund.
Though cleanup in the blast area is uppermost in the minds of many Bozemanites, the integrity of the natural gas system downtown continues to be a concern for downtown business owners and their customers. Rapkoch said she hopes NorthWestern Energy's education efforts regarding natural gas will help to ease those fears.
“It is safe downtown, yes,” insisted Rapkoch. “Very much so.”