Utility agrees to $500,000 fine in fatal Allentown blast

Viewer photos of the Allentown explosion in Allentown on February 9, 2011.

February 25, 2013 8:31:43 PM PST
A utility has agreed to pay a $500,000 fine and speed replacement of its cast-iron pipelines following a gas explosion that killed five people two years ago.

UGI Utilities Inc. president Robert Beard agreed to the state Public Utility Commission's order Monday in a letter that expressed "heartfelt sympathies" to the victims and other people in Allentown affected by the February 2011 blast.

Easton's The Express-Times newspaper said the order requires the Reading-based company to replace all cast-iron pipelines within 14 years and expand testing and monitoring.

The explosion also flattened a pair of row houses and set a block of homes afire. It was traced to a crack in a cast-iron main. Utility workers toiled for five hours to punch through ice, asphalt and concrete and seal the 12-inch-wide main with foam to stop the flow of gas.

Commission officials, in their proposal to modify the settlement - including boosting the civil fine from $386,000 to the maximum allowed by law at the time of the explosion - called the company's record of safety compliance "patently unacceptable."

"This is the eighth time in slightly more than four years that this commission has adjudicated a matter containing allegations of gas safety violations by a UGI-owned gas distribution utility," they said last month. "This goes beyond cause for concern; it is downright alarming."

UGI earlier said it had accelerated the replacement of gas pipelines made of cast iron and bare steel with new lines made of high-density plastic and coated steel.

"The UGI Companies know that it is our responsibility to safely and reliably serve customers," Beard's letter said. "UGI is committed to proactively managing and addressing the many significant operational challenges that confront natural gas distribution businesses generally and ours in particular."

Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski told the newspaper that he was glad UGI agreed to the state order but feels the pipeline replacement should be even faster and should start in his city.

"My hope is UGI will do what's right by the community and fix this at a much more accelerated rate before another tragedy occurs," Pawlowski said.

The father of a baby killed in the blast settled a wrongful-death claim against UGI Utilities Inc. last fall. Terms of the agreement between the utility and Steven Vega, the father of 4-month-old Matthew Vega, were not released.


Information from: The (Easton, Pa.) Express-Times, http://www.lehighvalleylive.com