Nearly 10 months have passed since a natural gas explosion destroyed a home, rocked nearby buildings and sent a shockwave coursing down Loras Boulevard through Dubuque.
Now, building shards have been cleared, and most residences are reoccupied, but attorneys are still sifting through the legal rubble to assign blame for the Sept. 28 incident that the State Fire Marshal’s Office estimated caused $2 million in damage.
The blast came about 90 minutes after a drilling contractor struck a natural gas main while boring for fiber optic cable. Gas filled the residence at 459 Loras Blvd., and an unknown ignition source turned the two-story structure into a bomb.
Initially, 16 buildings were deemed uninhabitable, displacing 54 residents.
A collection of insurance companies, whose policyholders include 11 affected property owners and two renters, have sued the contractor, Price Industrial Electric Inc., in Iowa District Court in Dubuque County.
The plaintiffs allege that Price and the company that marked the underground utility lines both engaged in negligent conduct. The insurance companies seek a jury trial and judgment of $700,000 to recover payments issued to policyholders.
Among the plaintiffs being represented is GRTD Investments, which owns the now-empty lot at 459 Loras Blvd.
The company’s co-owners, Dennis Buchheit and Toben Murdock, did not respond to requests for comment.
Price Industrial Electric has admitted that a worker did strike the underground main but denies all wrongdoing. Instead, it claims the gas line’s owner, Black Hills Energy, failed to cut off the flow of gas in a timely fashion.
In the event that Price is found liable, the company has requested that Black Hills contribute to any judgment levied against it.
Jim Ellis, Price’s vice president, did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson for Black Hills declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.
A trial scheduling conference is scheduled for Wednesday, July 21.
Gas main strikes are relatively common, Dubuque Fire Chief Rick Steines told the Telegraph Herald, but usually involve service lines that carry gas to a single residence.
The 4-inch main that the worker struck in September near the intersection of Loras Boulevard and Montrose Terrace serviced the general area and, consequently, released a significantly greater volume.
The Iowa Department of Public Safety investigated the disaster for several months, but the state’s fire marshal could not determine the path by which the gas entered the home nor the source of ignition.
“Most of the evidence was destroyed,” Steines said. “The building was in a heap.”
Black Hills hired a third party to conduct its own review, which faulted Price Industrial Electric for engaging in “improper excavation practices.” The report said the driller failed to verify the location of the line using a technique called “potholing,” in which a test hole is hand-cut into the ground to ascertain the location of the line.
Meanwhile, the Iowa Utilities Board conducted site surveys, which did “not reveal any issues with the overall response by Black Hills.”
The IUB also is investigating the incident for potential violations of Iowa Code that requires excavators to notify the state in advance of digging to enable utility staff to mark the locations of underground lines or other infrastructure.
An IUB spokesperson said the agency is finalizing a report to submit to the Iowa Office of the Attorney General for review and potential enforcement action for any violations.
Bryan Evans and his fiancee, Ashlea Beam, were cooking tacos at their 452 Loras Blvd. apartment when the building across the street exploded.
Their house shook, drywall and insulation fell from their ceilings, windows burst, and dishes and cups smashed on the floor.
Some glass fragments sliced Evans’ fingers, which were bleeding, and scratched his legs. They grabbed their two cats, and the couple and their roommates scaled a wall behind a neighbor’s house to leave the scene.
Displaced residents were not allowed to return to their homes until buildings could be secured.
Ben Pothoff, housing inspection supervisor for the City of Dubuque, said seven housing units affected by the blast remain under full or partial condemnation.
Another five are undergoing minor repairs but are approved for occupancy, while 41 units since have been approved for occupancy without restrictions.
City inspectors are monitoring properties to ensure that repairs are made, Pothoff said, but have not imposed hard deadlines in recognition that contractors and building materials that conform to the neighborhood’s historic code are difficult to obtain.
Evans and Beam were relieved when their landlord terminated their lease and refunded their security deposits. The owners of the property are among the plaintiffs suing Price Industrial Electric.
Evans and Beam moved in with Beam’s parents for two months before obtaining an apartment of their own in Maquoketa, Iowa. They returned to Loras Boulevard only twice to retrieve their belongings.
“Everyone was kind of freaked out to go back,” he said.
Evans is still incensed over the incident.
According to Evans, prior to the blast, utility workers did not inform him or his roommates that they needed to evacuate the area.
“We at one point considered, I wouldn’t say a lawsuit, but something,” he said.