AUGUSTA — Despite taking initial steps to ensure safe digging, a contractor working on a construction project next to the state Crime Lab on Hospital Street still struck an underground natural gas line July 15 in Augusta.

Augusta-based MainEx was the contractor on the job, preparing land for a small repair to a walkway when the line was hit. The company has undertaken four projects for the state Bureau of Real Estate Management’s property management division since 2016; that division was unaware of any previous accidents. 

Although an investigation by Maine Natural Gas and the Public Utilities Commission into how the line was breached is still in progress, initial findings show the contractor was at fault for hitting the line.

PUC spokesman Harry Lanphear said the agency hasn’t issued its final report but has gathered all the information about the incident that it needs.

“We will look at this excavator to see if they have had prior issues with us,” Lanphear said, adding that will determine the next steps in the process. “If it was a first-time offense, that would lead us in one direction; if they had multiple offenses in the same year, that would lead us another way.”

Catharine Hartnett, spokeswoman for Maine Natural Gas, said the company was working with the Public Utilities Commission on the investigation. She said until a final report is complete, the company would have no comment.

“Until they are satisfied and we are satisfied, we really couldn’t discuss it,” Hartnett said. “We look at any situation as an opportunity to plan, to understand how to prevent that from happening again.

“We want to be clear on the details before announcing any conclusion,” she added.

The incident took place just before 3 p.m. July 15, when a 2-inch service line — which carries gas from the main into the buildings it serves — was damaged. That resulted in the evacuation of the Maine State Police Crime Lab, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, the Maine State Police Troop D barracks and several houses. Hospital Street also was closed down for about an hour and traffic was diverted through the Mayfair neighborhood while the leak was being investigated.

Steve McCausland, spokesman for the Maine Department of Public Safety, previously said about 40 state employees were evacuated to a point behind the old state police garage for about an hour before they could return to work. The state police barracks houses the police officers who patrol in Kennebec and coastal counties, the state police detectives and the Traffic Safety Division.

According to Kyle Hadyniak, director of communications for the state Department of Administrative and Financial Services, Maine is required to contact DigSafe when it is conducting excavations, as well as have any contractors working on state property do the same.

“In this case, the contractor did contact DigSafe. The gas line had been marked with paint and flags,” he said. “That aspect of the project was done ‘by the book.’ We do not have a definitive answer about how the gas line was hit by the contractor’s excavator.”

“The gas service had been accurately marked,” Lanphear confirmed.

The gas line was repaired the day it was breached and is back in use, according to Hartnett.

As for repercussions for the contractor, that remains to be determined.

“There is a range of things that could happen,” Lanphear said. “We could require the excavator to do training in lieu of any monetary penalty. If it’s not a first offense, there could be a monetary penalty.”

“If the accident triggers any costs such as from the city of Augusta for its response, we would recover those from the contractor,” Hadyniak said. “Unless the mistake affected project budget or schedule, there would be no repercussions in this contract.

“However, in the future, if we pre-qualified contractors for a project and asked about safety record, this incident would come up,” he added.

The situation did cause a ripple effect for other state projects.

“The incident triggered an assessment of contractor practices on all state projects involving excavation,” Hadyniak said.

Lanphear said the PUC investigates 350 to 400 incidents annually, or an average of around one per day. He said each incident is investigated by the staff thoroughly, and the resolution for each is done on a case-by-case basis.

“This particular situation is  one of the more common damage situations that occurs,” Lanphear said. “There have to be markings where the lines are. Utilities are required to protect 18 inches in all directions of their infrastructure.

“Basically, the excavator is required to hand-dig 18 inches on either side of what’s marked,” he added. “If they use an excavator and get too close, these kinds of things happen.”

According to the PUC’s 2018 annual report, last year there were 73 excavator violations and 85 operator violations. An excavator violation is when the contractor is at fault; an operator violation is when the owner of the facility — such as a utility company or water district — is found to be at fault.

Penalties totaling $245,000 were assessed for those violations in 2018.

“We do training on Maine’s DigSafe law,” Lanphear said. “We’ve trained over 1,000 people a year for the last several years to make sure people understand the safe digging practices, and follow the rules and regulations to mark appropriately and excavate safely.

“We take this very seriously,” he added, noting that it is a public safety issue.

 

filed under:

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.