BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — A McFarland company preparing soil for almond tree planting in 2015 hit a natural gas pipeline, sparking a massive explosion, after PG&E failed to properly mark the line and didn’t send a standby inspector to supervise the scene as required under safety guidelines, an attorney said.
Theodore “Tad” Hoppe, representing Big N Deep Agricultural Development, on Tuesday said diagrams submitted by the utility to the California Public Utility Commission show markings for the pipeline were at least 100 feet apart. They’re supposed to be no more than 50 feet apart.
Also, Hoppe said, PG&E used 18-inch flags instead of the 4-foot wooden stakes required to mark pipelines in rural areas.
But the utility was most negligent in failing to send a standby, Hoppe said during his opening statement. That person could have pointed out exactly where the line ran.
“Had PG&E followed that requirement to have a standby in place this accident would have been avoided,” he said.
Hoppe’s remarks came on the second day of trial in a lawsuit filed by the family of two women who suffered severe burns when the Nov. 13, 2015, blast set ablaze a house near Wible and Houghton roads. One of the women, Gloria Ruckman, had given birth 17 days earlier. She grabbed her son and wrapped him in a fire-resistant jacket as she and her mother, Amalia Leal, escaped the inferno. They walked along a road in pain until a Good Samaritan picked them up.
Ruckman and Leal spent weeks in a burn unit with second- and-third-degree burns. Ruckman even had a fourth-degree burn — penetrating to the bone — in the calf area.
Ruckman, her husband, Robert Ruckman, son Robert Elias Ruckman, 6, Leal and her husband, Gil Leal, are plaintiffs in the case.
Defendants are PG&E, Big N Deep and Ag-Wise Enterprises.
PG&E owns pipeline 300A, the 34-inch transmission line that was hit. Big N Deep was conducting deep ripping with a bulldozer that struck the line, igniting the explosion which incinerated operator Joseph Michael Ojeda.
Ag-Wise is a farm management company that hired Big N Deep for the job.
No one disputes the Ruckman family suffered injuries, but there is finger-pointing among the defendants as to who is responsible.
PG&E attorney Dennis Ellis, who gave his opening statement Monday, focused on multiple accidents he said were the fault of Big N Deep and owner Jeff Alexander. He said PG&E properly marked the lines and followed safety guidelines.
Ellis criticized Ag-Wise for hiring Big N Deep despite knowing one of its employees struck the same pipeline a year earlier. The gas did not ignite in that incident.
Hoppe said some of the incidents referred to by Ellis were not Big N Deep’s fault. In the earlier case where the pipeline was hit, PG&E paddle markers showing the location of the line were more than 60 feet away from its actual location.
The utility is responsible for that hit, he said, as well as the 2015 explosion.
“They didn’t follow their rules,” Hoppe said.
James M. Baratta, co-counsel for Ag-Wise, said the company hired Big N Deep for different jobs over a decade and never had an issue.
“(Jeff Alexander)’s always efficient, always safe,” Baratta said.
Ag-Wise acted reasonably and had no role in coordinating the excavation, he told the jury.
The jury began hearing evidence late Tuesday morning. When they receive the case, jurors will deliberate on which companies are responsible and their percentage of blame, and how much the plaintiffs will receive.