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Saturday, Aug 17 2013 10:30 PM

Program was supposed to ensure PG&E demolition safety

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    By Autumn Parry / The Californian

    A PG&E truck exits the old steam power plant Monday afternoon. Cal-OSHA and the California Public Utilities Commission have begun investigating after the implosion of the two remaining towers injured five people, including one man in who is in critical condition.

    click to expand click to collapse
BY JOHN COX Californian staff writer jcox@bakersfield.com

The power plant implosion that critically injured a Bakersfield man this month occurred despite a new state-monitored program designed to specifically address safety problems at Pacific Gas and Electric Co. demolition projects.

PG&E's new "Contractor Safety Program" was put into place on a limited basis this past spring after a state-ordered analysis found that the utility needed help selecting qualified companies to safely perform power plant demolitions and other work.

Representatives of PG&E and its primary regulator, the California Public Utilities Commission, said they were not certain whether the program was in effect at this month's accident in Bakersfield.

"It is too early in our investigation for a definitive answer, but it is likely that PG&E was still in the beginning phase of program implementation," CPUC spokeswoman Terrie Prosper wrote in an email Friday.

The program calls for the company to use outside specialists to screen its contractors, according to the CPUC.

Prosper wrote that the program is intended to improve the way PG&E contractors are supervised and how job safety measures are established and projects assessed after work is completed.

PG&E spokesman Denny Boyles said the program was put into effect in April and that it remains in a "pilot phase."

"We're looking at ways that we can enhance our practice of evaluating contractor safety performance," he said.

Oversight of PG&E contractors has arisen as a key issue in the aftermath of the Aug. 3 implosion along Coffee Road.

PG&E President Chris Johns has said the company reviewed the safety record of its prime contractor on the job, and that the utility took a look at the site demolition plans ahead of time. But he said PG&E lacked the expertise necessary for a detailed review of the plans.

The CPUC has emphasized that it did not review the demolition plans in advance, and that it is up to the company to make sure its contractors do their job safely.

Under the safety program, though, the commission's safety role was expected to increase.

In a June 7 letter to PG&E, a copy of which was obtained by The Californian, a supervisor in the commission's Safety and Enforcement Division noted that the commission would "continue to monitor program implementation and the use of third party specialists to qualify contractors."

It is unclear whether closer monitoring by PG&E or the CPUC could have prevented the accident that severely injured the legs of Bakersfield resident Jerry Wood and caused minor injuries to several others. The CPUC and Cal-OSHA are investigating the accident.

(After an 11-hour surgery, doctors were "cautiously optimistic" that Wood will be able to keep both his legs, his attorney said. Wood remained in intensive care Friday afternoon.)

Each of the three companies contracted to work on the demolition jobs has run into some form of licensing or permitting trouble related to work done at the former PG&E power plant along Coffee.

Missing permits and licenses

PG&E says it contracted with Covina-based Cleveland Wrecking Co. to manage the demolition process, and that Cleveland contracted with Lincoln-based Alpha Explosives, which in turn brought on Demtech Inc., based in DuBois, Wyo.

On Friday, a Kern County Sheriff's Office representative said Demtech -- which the department understood was in charge of the dynamite and C-4 used in the implosion -- did not have the permit necessary to use the explosives.

Cmdr. Tyson Davis said that although the department had issued Alpha permits to store, transport and use explosives in the county, Demtech should have had a use permit as well.

Demtech gave the department a "blast plan" as part of its application to use explosives, said Davis, who did not have the plan in front of him and was unable to describe its contents.

But the company never completed the permit process, he added.

"It is my understanding that Demtech is the company that did the implosion, and Demtech ... did not have a permit," he said.

The Contractors State License Board has determined that Alpha's California contractors license -- which it needed to participate in the demolition -- expired three days before the implosion. A board spokesman said the agency had no record of having issued a license to Demtech.

Alpha and Demtech have not responded to repeated requests for comment.

Cleveland Wrecking, the primary contractor on the demolition, had a current contractor's license at the time of the implosion.

However, Cleveland's license has been an issue before.

According to Cal-OSHA, Cleveland lacked a permit it was supposed to have before performing demolition work at the site in June 2012, when one of its workers fell to his death while making vertical cuts to a large tank at the plant.

The agency has levied $20,250 in fines against Cleveland, mostly because the tank did not have lateral support, but also because the company did not have a demolition permit, among other violations. The company is appealing the proposed penalties.

Normally, demolition jobs in Bakersfield require permission from the city's building department. But city Building Director Phil Burns said such a permit was not necessary for this month's demolition because of the CPUC's overriding authority on work done by investor-owned utilities like PG&E. He noted that the department's demolition plan reviews are minimally detailed.

Cal-OSHA had issued Alpha a license to perform demolition work in the state. The agency was also made aware of Alpha's demolition plans in advance.

On July 16, the agency received an "activity notification form" from Alpha that included basic plans for the Aug. 3 implosion, such as the type of structures being demolished (four boilers) and what type of construction was to be brought down (steel frame).

Why the new safety program

PG&E introduced its new contractor safety program after commissioning outside reviews of fatal demolition accidents at two of its power plants.

One of these accidents was the June 19, 2012, death at the Coffee Road plant. The other took place Jan. 28, 2008, at the former Hunters Point plant in San Francisco, in which one man died and two were injured.

In its investigation of the Bay Area accident, Cal-OSHA concluded that the structure collapsed prematurely, before all personnel had been cleared from the area. The agency was unable to determine the cause of the collapse, and no penalties were issued.

On June 29, 2012, the CPUC asked PG&E to conduct "root cause analyses and associated corrective actions" for both accidents, noting that the two incidents had occurred during demolition.

Two months later, PG&E reported to CPUC staff that it still had not begun work on either of the analyses, according to an Oct. 5 letter from the commission to the utility.

In the same letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Californian, the CPUC ordered PG&E not to resume demolition work on the Bakersfield plant until the company had finished work on the analyses.

The CPUC and PG&E were unable to immediately provide copies of the analyses.

Boyles, the PG&E spokesman, said Cleveland has assumed responsibility for the 2008 and 2012 accidents.

It was unclear whether the contractor safety program was instituted in response to problems found at one or both demolition accidents.

In June communications between PG&E and a CPUC official, the commission explicitly authorized the utility to proceed with this month's implosion, according to copies of email obtained by The Californian.

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