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Utility to pay $8 million for natural gas explosion in Bellevue

May 18, 2006 | AP

The state’s largest investor-owned utility has agreed to pay $8 million to settle a lawsuit over the death of a woman after a natural gas explosion destroyed her home in Bellevue.

The daughter and two sons of the late Frances Schmitz, 68, accepted the settlement about two months ago after Puget Sound Energy promised to make changes designed to prevent similar accidents, said the family’s lawyer.

“They are relieved that they were able to get this resolution, to make this area safer so others don’t have to walk in their shoes,” Beninger said.

Puget Sound Energy did not admit fault as part of the settlement, he added.

Grant Ringel, a spokesman for the utility, would not discuss the details of the settlement but said Wednesday, “We are very happy to have this issue resolved and again express our sympathy to the family.”

Schmitz was severely burned by the blast and fire on Sept. 2, 2004, and died three weeks later. The explosion was blamed on a leaky pipe.

In their lawsuit, Schmitz’s children accused the utility of negligence.
State regulators found that long-term corrosion caused the leak in a steel pipe leading to the house. The pipe was installed in 1963 and was essentially unprotected from rust for two decades before an electrical corrosion protection system was added, according to expert testimony cited by the state Utilities and Transportation Commission.

As part of a settlement with the state panel last fall, Puget Sound Energy agreed to check for corrosion in tens of thousands of steel gas pipes across Western Washington and to review all coated steel gas lines that lacked corrosion protection for at least five years.

Soon after the explosion, regulators found that a miswired electrical device, a rectifier, could have contributed to the pipe corrosion, and as part of its settlement with the state the utility paid a $90,000 penalty for the miswiring.

In a final report by the commission’s Pipeline Safety Program last fall, however, investigators wrote that the rectifier had “little or no bearing” on the leak or explosion.

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