I-Team Report: Danger Underfoot

February 15, 2011 10:00:00 PM PST
In some parts of the city, underground pipes that deliver gas to homes and businesses are more than 100 years old.

In Chicago, Peoples Gas serves more than 800,000 customers. The public utility is responsible for maintaining the city's underground natural gas pipelines.

State inspection records obtained by the I-Team reveal a 2006 punch list of violations and neglected safety practices by Peoples Gas and a follow-up pipeline safety program ordered by state regulators that the utility has not fully complied with.

"I'm not exactly sure how he died. I'm not exactly sure what exactly happened in that hole that day," said Kris Gryga, widow.

That day was March 3 almost one year ago. That hole was on Wacker Drive in downtown Chicago. Kris Gryga's husband Mike, a veteran Peoples Gas employee, was underground working on a major project that included pressure testing decades-old pipeline sections to see if they were still safe or needed to be replaced.

"They were pumping pressure into the line and that coupling gave way, and so this pipe that weighs many, many hundreds of pounds became a projectile fired through the hole and crushed Mike. Had a concrete block been in that hole, had they known about the coupling down the line, Mike's life could have been saved," said Tim Tomasik, Clifford Law Offices.

According to an OSHA report, "that failure led to the serious injury of one employee and fatal injury of a second," Mike Gryga.

"Until this accident happened, you just take it for granted that everything under ground is safe and everything is good but sometimes they are not," said Kris Gryga.

Late Wednesday, a wrongful death lawsuit was filed by Gryga's widow against Meade Electric, charging negligence by the subcontractor Peoples Gas hired to the carry out the underground pipeline project. The suit alleges that Meade failed to properly inspect the nearly 60-year-old pipe, shore up the hole where Gyrga worked or warn him of the dangers underfoot.

Chuck Goudie asked, "Should other workers be concerned?

"Because this system was installed in 1952, there is a great concern within the tradesmen who work - the gas guys who work on this stuff - about these systems. Oftentimes they are sent into situations where they don't know if they are dealing with old equipment that's failing," replied Tomasik.

Gryga was killed at age 39, leaving behind a wife and twin teenagers in south suburban Frankfort.

Meade Electric President Frank J. Lizzadro refused our interview request but emailed: "Our work for Peoples Gas is always conducted in a normal safe and productive way as we do for all our customers."

Peoples Gas - a public utlity - also refused to talk, e-mailing us: "Safety is our guiding principle...Peoples Gas complies with very stringent federal and state regulations regarding pipeline safety."

But pipeline safety violations cost peoples $2 million in state fines - the maximum - in 2005 and 2006 for pipeline safety violations for failing to fix corroded pipes and submitting "questionable...unverifiable" records.

And in 2010, the day Michael Gyrga was killed, Peoples Gas "failed to comply with specific procedures for pressure-testing pipelines," according to federal investigators who found a "glaring and intentional disregard of their own safety procedures" that would have "prevented this tragic event."

"There are old pipes under the streets and it needs to be safe for people. This shouldn't have happened," said Kris Gryga.

With deadly gas explosions from Pennsylvania to California, both involving decades-old pipelines, there are renewed questions about chicago's danger underfoot.

According to the latest expert investigation prepared for state regulators and obtained by the I-Team, Peoples hasn't completed the 66 pipeline safety upgrades first ordered four years ago:

  • hasn't develop a system to track valve problems and inspections
  • hasn't implemented new federal training requirements for pipeline and hazardous materials set by the us transportation department
  • hasn't improved the utility's quality control program
  • hasn't conducted required audits of contractor crews, such as a crew authorities say was grossly negligent the day Mike Gryga climbed into the hole
  • "I'm still left without a husband and father for my kids so I'm not sure any of its going to help but making sure that it's not going to happen again to another family, that's what's important to me," said Kris Gryga.

    Peoples Gas itself is not being sued by kris greega because under workers comp laws employers can't be sued. Survivors receive workers comp settlements which she has. The Illinois Commerce Commission has scheduled a hearing for next month on the role of Peoples Gas in Gryga's death.

    Unrelated, Peoples Gas asked the ICC for a rate increase.