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Mark Bello
Mark Bello
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Regulators Fine Mobile Home Park for Safety Violations that Led to a Deadly Explosion

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The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC) leveled the maximum fine of $2 million against mobile home park operator for safety violations discovered after a deadly explosion on Valentine’s Day in 2014.

Mobile park

Photo by The Morning Call

Failure to properly inspect and maintain a two-mile natural gas pipeline system resulted in an explosion in the Hickory Hills Mobile Home Park that killed a 65-year-old man. His girlfriend said the couple first complained of a natural gas smell more than a month before the explosion. A Hickory Hills mobile home park employee and a certified handyman visited the home several times, but said they were unable to find the source of a leak. The gas became so bad that both next-door neighbors complained to park management. The smell “got progressively worse each day to the point that when they would step out of their house, it would burn their eyes,” a report said.

According to his girlfriend, on the night of the explosion her boyfriend was burning candles in the house to mask the smell because park officials assured the couple that their home was safe. The home was leveled in the fire.

An investigation by the PUC found 39 violations including that Hickory Hills mobile home park and its parent company Continental Communities had not registered its two-mile natural gas pipeline system with the state for inspection in years. The PUC said a survey seven years earlier found multiple leaks and recommended the pipeline system be removed. Reports also showed a leaking gas line at the same home in 2012 and 2014, but projects to replace the pipes were cancelled. Additionally, the mobile home park had no written procedures in place on how it would control corrosion of the pipes or track maintenance. It also had no written procedures on training employees and communicating with first responders in the event of a natural gas disaster, according to the complaint. Hickory Hills has 20 days to respond. If there is no response, the PUC could issue an order imposing the penalty. If not for the state cap on fines, Hickory Hills would have faced a $7.8 million fee for the violations.

A vast majority of pipelines do not require inspection; only pipelines near natural resources or population centers are subject to mandatory inspection. Of those, only 7 % are near a neighborhood. While utility companies know where pipelines are buried, residents may not. Utilities are required by law to mark pipelines clearly and notify residents about the oil and gas lines running beneath them. That was not the case for residents in of Hickory Hills.  Based on recent incidents (recall the San Bruno explosion), isn’t it obvious that underground gas and oil pipelines are not as safe as we were led to believe? It is time to enforce stricter regulations – at the very least, automated valves, regular inspections, and improved training.

It may take years to resolve their problems, but hopefully it will not take years for victims receive compensation and justice. I hope Continental Communities gets the message loud and clear that they can’t adopt safety measures sporadically, even decades later. Safety must come first!

Do you know how to determine if there is a gas leak in your neighborhood? Here are some things to watch for to keep you and your family safe.

Smell: Natural gas is colorless and odorless but utility companies often add an odor to the gas so that leaks can be detected. Typically, it’s a rotten egg smell.

Hear: If you hear a roaring, hissing or whistling sound, it could be a leak.

See: Look for a white cloud or a misty fog. If you notice bubbles in standing water or vegetation that appears dead or seems to be dying for no reason, there might be a natural gas leak.

If you suspect a leak, leave your house immediately. Open windows if there is a faint odor. Avoid anything that could create a spark – this includes lights, appliances, telephone, cell phone, ringing the doorbell, or starting the car. Anything with an electric charge is a deadly risk you want to avoid.

Mark Bello is the CEO and General Counsel of Lawsuit Financial Corporation, a pro-justice lawsuit funding company.