Fresno pipeline testing rules out corrosion, stress, blames front loader

FRESNO, Calif. (KFSN) -- New evidence into the cause of the deadly PG&E pipeline explosion at a Northwest Fresno gun range was revealed Monday. The blame for the blast is being placed right now on a front loader. The investigation into the specific causes of the explosion continues even after this initial report.

Questions still remain in what's expected to be a long legal battle over fault, like what exactly that front loader was doing when it struck the pipe and how far underground the pipe was when the fireball was set off back in April.

The massive explosion injured about a dozen people, some severely. One man reportedly has burns over 80 percent of his body. Most of the injured were Fresno County Jail inmates working in the area when the blast happened.

One of the inmates, Jeremiah Espino, 52, died weeks after the April 17 explosion.

Now testing of the pipeline finds "...significant gouging, scraping and deformation present at the line 118B rupture location could have only been caused by contact with the front-loader bucket."

"I'm not surprised because this was not a neutral company that performed the testing," said Fresno-based attorney Butch Wagner. "It was exponent which is a retained expert by PG&E."

Wagner is one of two attorneys representing several of the injured inmates. They've filed suit over the explosion.

The testing points out that the PG&E gas pipeline was buried nearly 4 feet underground. But, those measurements were taken on each side of the crater caused by the blast.

"You have to look at the evidence that existed prior to the explosion as to the depth of the pipeline and how well compacted the ground was and the integrity of the ground covering the pipeline," Wagner said.

The report also gives us a closer look at the blast site and damage left behind once the flames were put out. Exponent tested the pipeline at its facilities in Menlo Park. It ruled out stress, corrosion and fatigue as causes as the pipeline passed all safety tests.

Photos show scrape marks on the damaged section the report says are from the front loader striking the pipe.

PG&E says it never received calls to 811 that work or possibly digging would take place at the site.

The sheriff's department, which maintains the facility, says the front loader was smoothing dirt near the blast site.

Warren Paboojian, another attorney representing the injured, says this report is just one piece to the puzzle.

PG&E says it continues to cooperate with the state investigation.

The sheriff's department said it needs more time to review and evaluate the report before saying anything.

Click here to view the full report.
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