SOUTH BEND – It was a cold February afternoon. February 16, 2010.
“I got a call from a friend,” recalled Cathy Pieronek.
“They just said gas explosion and fire,” added her husband, Charles Shedlak.
In an instant, their home of 18 years was gone – along with their two pet bunnies.
“You realize it’s gone and it’s unbelievable,” Pieronek continued.
“It was literally a burnt-out basement full of rubble and ash,” said Shedlak.
Charlie Ehninger, 86, lived next door, in the same complex. According to his granddaughter, Keri Schmitt, Ehninger was home when the explosion happened.
“I didn’t know what happened,” Ehninger told WSBT in February 2010. “I thought something hit the house.”
He also lost everything.
That was four years ago. Contractors working on a project for AEP hit a gas main. They called NIPSCO, someone called the fire department. South Bend Fire crews responded, but as they packed up to leave, a massive explosion blasted four condominiums on Sandpiper Cove Run.
“I guess NIPSCO, AEP, the utility people, I guess they thought that was safe,” Shedlak said. “Surely that can’t be the best they ought to be able to do.”
The Search for Accountability
In November 2010, Pieronek, Shedlak, some of their neighbors and the neighborhood association sued NIPSCO, AEP, Asplundh and One Vision Utilities – the company that marked the gas line for the project. None of those companies wanted to comment for this story.
“It’s in litigation now, I don’t really have any comments about the particular incident,” said NIPSCO Public Affairs Manager Angie Nelson Deuitch.
Indiana’s Utility Regulatory Commission says it investigated the explosion. According to a 2-page, hand-written report, an IURC inspector spent about 90 minutes at the scene the day it happened. The report also says no one was inside the damaged homes when the explosion happened, but Pieronek and Shedlak say that’s not true – they weren’t home when it happened, but two of their neighbors were.
“NIPSCO, they tell you things on their website -- like if there’s gas in the area, even if you don’t have gas in your home, leave,” Pieronek said. “Our two neighbors, Charlie Ehninger, who was 86 at the time and Josephine Block, who was 87 at the time, they knocked on their doors to ask them, ‘Do you smell gas?’ and left them in their houses.”
NIPSCO would not say specifically what its crews did or did not do in this instance, but spokeswoman Kathleen Szot told WSBT, “There are a number of safety procedures that our crews are trained to follow and they did follow in this incident.”
The IURC inspector also noted questions about requests to locate gas lines.
NIPSCO’s report, submitted to the IURC and federal government says “excavation practices [were] not sufficient] and claims the contractor failed to “maintain clearance” of gas lines.
In 2009, a new Indiana law said people can be penalized for hitting a gas line. The law is more complex than that but in this case, a year after the law went into effect, WSBT found no state or federal records that say anyone involved in the Sandpiper Cove explosion was ever penalized for what happened.
“It’s definitely a problem. A local problem, it’s a problem statewide,” said Indiana State Senator John Broden.
He sits on the Senate Utilities Committee and says the committee heard testimony last summer from contractors who were concerned about the way underground utilities are marked and what happens once they're hit.
“This is happening too frequently, too often,” Broden continued. “But the general assembly may have to step in and say who’s responsible.”
‘It doesn’t take much to set one of those off’
Of the nearly 300 gas leaks NIPSCO capped in Elkhart, St. Joseph and LaPorte Counties in 2013, the gas company says the majority – 160 – were in St. Joseph County. That’s 1 leak every 2 ¼ days.
According to NIPSCO records, 37.5 percent of those were caused by excavator negligence, 35 percent because no one called to have the lines flagged, 15 percent were “internal issues,” – NIPSCO’s fault and just 12.5 percent caused because crews looking for the lines couldn’t find them or didn’t mark them right.
Even so, NIPSCO says the number of gas leaks in its coverage area continues to decrease over the last five years. It investigates all leaks, Nelson Deuitch said, to see what it or others involved could have done differently.”
The company is also working with contractors, locators and its own employees to provide more training – as well as internally to keep its maps accurate. NIPSCO hopes Indiana’s legislature will approve funding to help improve aging infrastructure, Deuitch said.
“It’s very scary, it’s nerve wreaking,” said Reith Riley safety manager Bob Montel.
Reith Riley is a heavy-duty road contractor working primarily in Indiana and Michigan. Montel says his crews hit gas and other utility lines no matter how careful they are.
“We are lucky that nobody’s gotten hurt,” he added. “It doesn’t take much to set one of those off.”
Indiana law requires digging my hand within 2 feet on either side of a marked utility line. One of the problems with that, Montel said, is those lines could be 6 inches or 6 feet deep.
He also said sometimes lines are not properly marked.
“If they’re outside that 2 foot area, we don’t try to hand dig or vacuum excavate to find them. We’re just digging away,” Montel added. “Sometimes we have no idea that they’re there.
WSBT reached out to One Vision Utilities, the company that marked the lines in the Sandpiper Cove incident. The company’s Mishawaka office no longer exists and several phone numbers for One Vision are disconnected.
WSBT also put several calls into the USIC Utility Locating Services, Inc. office in Indianapolis and never heard back. USIC is the largest utility marking contractor in the United States.
Not About the Money
On Sandpiper Cove, Pieronek and Shedlak had insurance and rebuilt. They’re still digging for answers.
The couple, who are both attorneys, say they’re in the court battle until the end, but it’s not about the money.
“This community has a right to be safe from contractors who have a monopoly on providing gas and electricity into our homes,” Pieronek said. “The government grants them a right to do this. We don't have a choice. Even if we didn't use natural gas in our house, there would be gas running outside our house.”
They want accountability for something they say is preventable.
“We really want to make sure this doesn’t happen to anyone else in this community,” she added.
What You Need to Know
Many natural gas leaks are preventable, according to NIPSCO, and there are steps we can all take to keep our families safe.
If you see someone digging – whether it’s a big machine or your neighbor – you should also see colored flags or spray paint on the ground.
Blue signals a water line beneath the surface, green for sewer, yellow for gas, red for electric and brown for phone and cable lines. Those markings mean they called 811 and requested to have their utilities located.
811 is a taxpayer-funded service. Anyone who digs is legally required to call the number two business days before breaking ground.
If you notice digging and don’t see markings, ask the person in charge of the project if they had the lines marked. Then call the specific utility provider you believe is affected and 811 to report it.