State investigates Kamehameha Hwy. gas leak, could issue fines

Local News

On Thursday in Aiea, Kiewit hit an 8-inch pipe carrying synthetic natural gas while working on Honolulu’s rail transit project.

It took hours for Hawaii Gas workers to shut off the line, which was three feet deep. The utility said that’s because crews had to secure the area and make sure it was safe.

“That’s going to take some time to do because we got to dig into the pipe, so we can pinch it off and secure the leak,” said Jack Grimmer, Hawaii Gas vice president.

So how exactly did the leak happen and is anyone being held accountable?

HART says its safety team is in the process of investigating the incident.

Hawaii Gas is still investigating, but KHON2 found out that the utility did mark its territory.

“So when the one call comes in, we go out, we send our workers out, and they’ll go out and mark where the lines are,” Grimmer said.

“Physically mark that there’s a utility there?” KHON2 asked.

“Correct,” Grimmer said.

“That was done back in July?” KHON2 asked.

“Correct,” he said.

“So crews should have seen that and known there was a utility there?” KHON2 asked.

“Again, we’ll do the investigation. I can’t comment. I don’t know exactly what happened out there,” he said.

Hawaii Gas says the area was marked last July and again this past November.

So how did this happen? KHON2 tried to get answers from rail officials, who directed us to Kiewit. We reached out to the rail contractor and was sent a statement:

While conducting work on behalf of the Honolulu Rail Transit project, crews inadvertently ruptured a gas line while relocating utility lines on Kamehameha Highway near Kaonohi Street. Kamehameha Highway has been closed in both directions between Kaonohi Street and Lipoa Place. Hawaii Gas was immediately notified and is on site to contain the leak. We continue to work as expeditiously as possible to repair the gas line, and our utmost priority remains the safety of the traveling public and nearby residents and businesses. We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused those affected.

Although the company apologized for the inconvenience, it did not say how it happened. So we called Kiewit again, but a spokesperson could not provide any more details.

While it is still unclear, KHON2 checked with a civil engineer to see how this incident could have happened.

“Sometimes they are marked, but they are not marked perhaps for depth or there is a mistake somewhere, or the worker was inattentive and he did not receive the right information,” said University of Hawaii engineering professor Panos Prevedouros. “We can’t call it common, but it is a possibility every time you excavate.”

Prevedouros says the first level of responsibility falls on the contractor.

“To check with the city maps as well as to check with the individual utilities, if they have not done their due diligence, they will be held liable,” said Prevedouros.

We went to the Public Utilities Commission looking for answers, and found out the state is investigating the gas leak and has the authority to hold the parties involved accountable.

“If negligence or an error is found, can something be done?” KHON2 asked.

“We do have the power to issue penalties and we also do have the authority to hold a hearing,” said Gary Kobayashi, chief of consumer affairs and compliance.

“So what would the penalties be?” KHON2 asked.

“The penalties, I believe, could be up to $5,000 a day,” Kobayashi said.

The state says this may be the first time it is investigating an incident like this related to the rail project.

While no one was hurt, accidents like this can cause problems. Recent work on Kapahulu Avenue led to a shallow gas line being struck, which led to a massive fire that burned for hours.

“This is a very dangerous situation particularly for the workers because at that time, there can be a spark and the initial boom can be devastating,” said Prevedouros.

That is why area councilmember Brandon Elefante says he will continue to keep in contact with HART and Kiewit to ensure the public’s safety.

“We can learn from this accident today,” said Elefante, “and we can do our best to ensure that the necessary protocols are in place to ensure that we do the best that we can as the rail project moves forward.”

This isn’t the first time rail crews have caused damage.

In August 2015, Kiewit crews working on the part of the future rail line near Aloha Stadium damaged a water main, causing part of Kamehameha Highway to close.

Earlier, in May, Kiewit crews also damaged a fiber optic cable that caused more than 100 of the city’s traffic cameras to go out.

We asked HART if it keeps track of accidents that happen during rail-related work and how much money goes into fixing them, but have yet to hear back.

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