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Crews following new protocols one year after the natural gas explosion in NW Portland

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PORTLAND, OR (KPTV) -

It’s now been one year since a massive natural gas explosion in Northwest Portland that leveled an entire building and sent eight people to the hospital.

In the time since then, the families who lost their livelihoods are at very different stages of rebuilding.

“We’ve never received a phone call, an email, a bagel order – or an apology, quite honestly,” Kim Fisher told FOX 12.

Fisher and Rik Bartel own Portland Bagelworks, one of the businesses that quite literally exploded. One year later, they are still waiting on insurance claims.

They lost everything in the blast – the bagel business they’d worked so hard to open, and every single thing that was inside.

“We didn’t get a ballpoint pen, we didn’t get a paperclip,” Bartel added. “Everything was gone.”

Tualatin-based subcontractor Loy Clark Pipeline was found to be at fault. According to a 16-page investigative report released by the Oregon Public Utility Commission, Loy Clark “gave notice for work on the south side of NW Glisan Street,” but “began to excavate on the north side.”

As a result, a pipe was pulled away from an underground valve, sending natural gas “under the sidewalk” and pooling “into the basement” of the historic building on the corner of Northwest Glisan Street and 23rd Avenue.

It exploded a few minutes later. According to NW Natural, the blast caused more than $17 million in damages.

Loy Clark was fined $4,900 by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration “for failing to determine the location of underground utilities before opening an excavation.”

 It’s the maximum penalty that OSHA can issue in this case, and Loy Clark is appealing the fine.

“The first and most significant thing to recognize is that Oregon OSHA’s jurisdiction is worker safety and health. So, the extent of any property damage… is not considered in determining the penalty,” an OSHA spokesperson told FOX 12. “The maximum penalty for a serious violation that is not a repeat violation and that does not involve willful conduct on the part of the employer is $7,000.”

That $7,000 maximum penalty was reduced by 30 percent, given the size of Loy Clark.

MORE: Business owners still rebuilding a year after NW Portland gas explosion

The Oregon Public Utility Commission has not issued any fines or penalties against Loy Clark.

“The PUC, to date, has not assessed any penalties or received complaints against Loy Clark,” a spokesperson for the commission told FOX 12. “Pursuant to ORS 757.993, the PUC may seek a civil penalty for a violation of Oregon Utility Notification Center (OUNC) rules in response to a complaint alleging such a violation. At this time, the PUC has not received a complaint for a violation of any OUNC administrative rules.”

The PUC report also found that Loy Clark employees notified NW Natural Gas right away, but waited 19 minutes to call 911.

As it turns out, they weren’t required to immediately notify emergency responders.

Now, they are. A company spokesperson told FOX 12 it is one of many policies Loy Clark Pipeline has changed as a result of the explosion.

“At that time, our protocol was to call the affected utility first and then call 911 if we were directed to do so. Our crew followed that protocol last October,” the spokesperson explained. “We have since modified this protocol to require an immediate 911 call and then a call to the affected utility. We have protocols in place for everything we do and we take those protocols very seriously.”

The spokesperson added that Loy Clark made a number of changes following the incident.

  • Instituted a new vetting process for training and testing new employees, increasing by 67 percent the time spent training before being dispatched to the field.
  • Increased disciplinary actions for employees who do not follow protocols, no matter how minor the violation.
  • Tasking higher-level foremen with job site pre-checks one to two days before work is scheduled to begin.

The spokesperson also said the company implemented a new program to train new crew members showing the potential to become foremen so they “know and understand all the responsibilities and expectations of a foreman before they’re even in that role.”

Of the three people working on the Loy Clark crew that day, two of them remain with the company, and disciplinary action has been taken against both of them, but the company can’t comment on specifically what that action was.

The company added that 80 percent of the insurance claims it has received have now been settled.

“We are in continual communication with Liberty Mutual to ensure claims are being handled as quickly as possible," the spokesperson told FOX 12. "If anyone needs support on their claim, I encourage them to call our dedicated insurance hotline at 844-839-5491 or their claims adjuster.”

PHOTOS: Gas explosion in NW Portland

Jason Kundell is another business owner who lost everything in the blast. His shop, Art Work Rebels Tattoo, was also inside the building that blew up, and he told FOX 12 he’s still waiting for insurance claims to settle.

“Boy, an apology, a heartfelt apology, I don’t know if it would go a long way but it would be something,” Kundell said.

In a statement to FOX 12, a spokesperson for Loy Clark Pipeline responded to Kundell’s statement by saying, “In Loy Clark Pipeline’s 60-year history, we’ve never been involved with an accident like this. We are truly sorry for what happened.”

Loy Clark Pipeline was hired as a subcontractor by Bremik Construction, and in a statement to FOX 12, the company claimed to have one of the “best safety records in Oregon,” but noted the explosion has made their teams become “more acutely aware of the potential hazards around our job sites.”

“The natural gas explosion that occurred on October 19, 2016 serves as a reminder to our entire industry of how important safety protocols are for our crews and the communities we work in. The immediate response and safety measures executed by the first responders, local utilities and Loy Clark Pipeline were exemplary in minimizing the potential outcome of the explosion.  Bremik Construction is privileged to have one of the best safety records in Oregon. And yet, this incident has caused our team to be more acutely aware of the potential hazards around our jobsites and how we can prevent them.

“While the incident had a dramatic effect on so many, we owe gratitude to those who stepped in harm’s way to protect the lives of others. Our team continues their work to return normalcy to the NW 23rd neighborhood.”

NW Natural was not involved in the explosion in any way. The utility sent first responders to the scene to work on shutting off the gas and helping firefighters evacuating buildings.

In a statement, the utility applauded the work to restore the neighborhood, noting the efforts the company has made to help since the explosion.

“We are glad that our customers and the public in the NW 23/Glisan area have made progress on recovery from one year ago. We’re grateful that we’ve been able to help in whatever way we could, from charitable donations to attending public meetings to encouraging our employees to support businesses in the area.

“As always, we remind people that if they smell gas, to leave the area immediately. In this case, people self-evacuated or were evacuated by our crews or the fire department and that was critical in preventing injuries. We remain a first responder to natural gas emergencies in our territory and will do all we can to prevent this rare situation from occurring again.”

Even with that praise, small business owners like Kim Fisher said facing the challenges of trying to come back after such a loss remains a struggle.

“We will be successful again, I know that,” she said of Portland Bagelworks. “But this, just emotionally, I think again a lot of people don’t understand how long this stays with you.”

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