The Public Utilities Commission of Ohio recommended last week that Columbia Gas receive a six-figure fine and take a series of prevention and education steps in the wake of a gas explosion that destroyed an Upper Arlington house and damaged a number of others throughout a neighborhood last spring.

The Public Utilities Commission of Ohio recommended last week that Columbia Gas receive a six-figure fine and take a series of prevention and education steps in the wake of a gas explosion that destroyed an Upper Arlington house and damaged a number of others throughout a neighborhood last spring.

The PUCO staff released a report Aug. 28 recommending that PUCO levy a $400,000 fine against Columbia Gas of Ohio for allegedly failing to disconnect or properly seal an old gas line that investigators said caused a March 21 explosion at 3418 Sunningdale Way in Upper Arlington.

The staff report also recommended that the company be required to develop procedures for identifying inaccurate curb box locations in its pipeline systems, review service-line abandonment training protocols and educate government organizations it works with about possible hazards related to unintended releases of natural gas.

The recommendation follows a July 24 PUCO report that concluded Columbia Gas of Ohio "improperly abandoned" the original service line to the house sometime between 1985 and 1997, after the line was shut off and replaced due to a corrosive leak.

Columbia Gas has denied responsibility, maintaining that the company was not allowed to install or repair service lines prior to 2008.

According to the July 24 PUCO report, the old line was mislabeled as a water line and opened by a Columbus Water Department (CWD) worker March 20 in preparation of repairs for a water leak at 3418 Sunningdale.

That report also stated the CWD did not fully close the old gas line, which allowed gas to leak into the house.

"The old service line was not properly abandoned," the Aug. 28 staff report concluded. "The service line remained connected to the main, the end of the service line was not plugged or sealed and the curb box was left in a condition where the curb valve was still accessible and operable."

The owners at 3418 Sunningdale, Hidefumi and Mariko Ishida, were out of town at the time of the explosion and no one in the neighborhood was injured, despite the fact a Columbia Gas worker was on the scene at the time responding to a report of the smell of natural gas and it was a sunny and warm Saturday afternoon.

Seven homes in the area remain uninhabitable and 18 others were damaged.

"This isn't the final action," PUCO spokesman Matthew Schilling said Aug. 28. "It's just the staff's recommendation to the commissioners, who at a later date will have to determine what's appropriate."

Columbia Gas response

Columbia Gas issued a lengthy statement Aug. 28 contending that neither the July 24 nor Aug. 28 reports by the PUCO staff assigned liability or responsibility for the blast.

It also reiterated the company's assertion that "a unique set of circumstances contributed" to the explosion and that the PUCO does not have enforcement or remediation authority over some of the individuals and entities that played a role in the incident.

"The PUCO has oversight function over utility companies, including Columbia Gas, to ensure utility customers receive safe and reliable services," the Columbia Gas release stated.

"Columbia Gas is committed to the safe operation of its system and will continue to deliver on those expectations."

The statement added that a "third party mismarked the valve to the discontinued gas service line as a water line" at the house that exploded, and that a third party "turned the mismarked valve, causing natural gas to fill the house."

"Immediately following the incident, Columbia Gas inspected all neighborhood facilities, conducted in-home safety inspections and performed camera inspections of main lines in the immediate area," the statement read. "Those inspections confirmed that Columbia Gas' system is safe."