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Daughter of Capt. Michael Bell testifies in favor of adding propane lines to Dig Safe Law

First responders at the scene of the Sept. 16, 2019, explosion at 313 Farmington Falls Road. Capt. Michael Bell of Farmington Fire Rescue was killed in the blast.

AUGUSTA - The daughter of a Farmington Fire Rescue captain killed in an explosion at an office building in Farmington last year testified before a legislative committee this week in favor of including propane lines in the state's Dig Safe Law. She testified that the explosion had been "preventable" and that the leak in the buried line had been caused by the installation of a bollard.

Danielle Bell Flannery, daughter of Capt. Michael Bell, testified Tuesday before the Maine Legislature's Joint Standing Committee on Energy, Utilities and Technology in favor of LD 1892 "An Act To Make Changes to the So-called Dig Safe Law." That law, presented by Rep. Seth Berry (D - Bowdoinham) and cosponsored by Sen. Mark Lawrence (D - York), Rep. Scott Landry (D - Farmington) and Sen. Russell Black (R - Wilton), would specify that liquefied propane gas distribution systems with underground pipes would fall under the Dig Safe Law, mandating excavators report planned projects and prohibiting digging around some lines.

Flannery told the committee that the leak that led to the explosion at the LEAP Inc. office building on the Farmington Falls Road had been created "when a bollard was augured into place, slicing open the underground propane line at the LEAP facility." In this context, a bollard refers to a short, sturdy post used to direct traffic or protect a specific area.

"This leak caused hundreds of gallons of propane to seep into the ground, eventually finding its way into the basement of the building," Flannery testified. "According to the fire marshal’s office, where the propane line was located had been a point of contention when the bollards were placed. If propane lines were reportable to Dig Safe, they could have called and obtained this information."

Previously, the State Fire Marshal's Office indicated that an external tank had been filled with nearly 400 gallons of propane on Friday, Sept. 13, 2019, but was found to be empty when it was examined by LEAP employees on the morning of Sept. 16, prior to the explosion. That explosion occurred as a Farmington Fire Rescue crew was investigating a report of a gas smell within the building. Several firefighters and one LEAP employee, maintenance supervisor Larry Lord, were badly injured in the blast. Capt. Michael Bell, 68, was killed.

"While there could have been so many other tragedies that day, the loss of my dad was enough," Flannery said in her testimony. "Losing him to such a preventable death is enough. Not having my mentor, my friend, a role model for his grandkids and a husband for my mother, is tragedy enough, and my family can't just sit by and 'take one for the team.'"

The building was otherwise evacuated when the explosion occurred; Lord has been praised by local and state officials for ensuring that other LEAP employees left the structure prior to the blast. The explosion destroyed the building as well as several nearby structures, displacing roughly 30 people.

All of the injured firefighters have since been released from medical facilities and some have returned to work. Lord continues to receive treatment at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, where his condition is currently listed as fair.

Fire Marshal's Office investigators have not yet indicated what caused the leak in the buried line or what sparked the explosion.

Rep. Landry also testified that the leak was the result of a rupture in the gas line caused "when a bollard was placed next to the building to protect an exterior heating unit."

"Dig Safe was not contacted prior to drilling because an LPG line is not covered by current laws," he said. "If it was an electric line, a water line or even a sewer line, the contractor would have been required to contact Dig Safe and this tragedy would have been prevented."

Landry, who also serves on the LEAP board of directors, added that bills to add propane lines to the Dig Safe law had been unsuccessfully introduced during the 126th and 128th sessions, but had failed to pass as a result of lobbying.

In addition to adding liquefied propane gas distribution systems to the Dig Safe law, LD 1892 would also increase the penalties for violating the law from $500 to $1,000 and $5,000 to $10,000 for subsequent violations.

Sen. Black also expressed his support LD 1892. "It seems to me there is no reason of any kind to oppose this bill which can literally save the lives of Mainers and prevent another tragedy like the one that occurred in Farmington back in September," Black testified. "It is a simple fix to a law with a very important potential impact."

Those testifying in opposition to LD 1892 included Leslie Anderson, president and CEO of the Propane Gas Association of New England. She said that the bill would "expand the jurisdiction of the [Public Utilities Commission] beyond its federal jurisdiction and it would create a rule that does not exist in any other state." Anderson said that she polled other association heads from across the country and found that no other state had a law like the one proposed in LD 1892.

Mark Anderson, safety manager for Dead River Company, also testified in opposition to the bill. He argued that propane systems were safer than other products covered by Dig Safe, that adding the Dig Safe requirement would result in significant costs relating to registering facilities and that Dead River, despite having sold propane for more than 50 years, had never had a serious incident relating to excavators striking underground propane tanks or lines.

"This expansion of Dig Safe rules to include propane facilities and increase fines costs Maine businesses and our customers, and in our opinion, does not necessarily protect public safety," Anderson testified.

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7 Responses »

  1. My question would be who is contacted for a digsafe request for LP lines? When a person, company or utility contacts digsafe about a certain area they wish to dig, local and state utilities (water, sewer, electric etc.) follow up and make sure they have no existing lines in the marked area. But in rural areas LP isn't a utility and is installed by private companies. So who responds to fulfill and sign off on the digsafe request? Every single company that installs LP lines in the area? Would an agency or some collaberation of all companies that have LP service need to be established in order to fulfill digsafe requests?
    Also would digsafe requests on or around roads (public right of way) need to have an LP line check too? Because that would seem like a waste of time.
    I'm not saying adding LP lines to digsafe requests can't or shouldn't be done, I just think "no reason of any kind" to question this is a bit of an oversimplification.

  2. Working in the industry, i can tell you this. When a underground gas line is buried it needs sand as a bed and a top, then the back fill. It also needs caution tape and tracer wire. It seems as though whomever was the GC on this site, should have relayed the information as to where the gas line was located to the company who was doing the bollards. I’ve installed underground lines more times then i can count, as well as dug up lines with no issues. The problem i see with this specific incident is lack of communication between companies. It seems ludicrous to me that dig safe should be involved, they would be beyond overwhelmed with the work they would receive if this was to come to law. This tragedy could have been avoided with mere communication. You want answers and or results, dig safe wont be it. Maybe the GC Or company who laid the gas work should have answers your looking for. The leak could have been preventable, yes. But so could of the ignition source that caused the explosion....

  3. I agree with walk the walk. Dig Safe is not the place for this. It was definitely a tragedy but this is not the way
    to handle it.

  4. Ok smart people who seem to be saying there is no problem here,,,
    One person was killed, many serious injuries and many more barely escaped....

    We can't just walk away and move on with,, "this had never happened before" comments.

    If it happened even once,

    If you view this as a hassle that will effect your profit margin on a job,,,

  5. Dig safe contacts local utilities for marking. Whenever my boss calls dig safe the local gas company checks for lines as does water, sewer, cmp, cable (spectrum). Not sure about all gas&oil companies.

  6. So as Joe Stupid Homeowner I’ve always been told thru countless tv ads I have to call Digsafe before I start any digging no matter what kind of line might be buried so why wouldn’t a contractor? Even if Digsafe wasn’t required to look for a gas line the second set of trained eyes might have noticed someone wanted to drill between a gas tank and a building and put up a flag.

  7. 1. My impression from the reports I've seen so far -- without looking up the law itself -- is that the dig safe law is stated by enumeration, that is, it lists specific types of things that must be reported (water pipes, sewer pipes, electric wires, and maybe some others). Shouldn't the law also have a catch-all category for "anything else that would be dangerous to cut into"? Otherwise it would have to be revised to list every new technology that installs a new type of dangerous object underground.

    2. Of course it might be very hard to collect records of past installations that might have been done by many different small companies or even by individual landowners. But a law could at least make a start by requiring a central registry for all future installations and setting up a central research project to find as many past installations as possible..

    3. The very existence of a dig safe law easily gives the impression, to those who haven't studied it in detail, that all you need to do before digging is to contact the central dig safe authority. If this isn't enough, that fact should be clearly explained to anyone contacting dig safe.