What there is to know
- The National Transportation Safety Board said Monday that the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission refused to provide inspection and investigation reports for UGI Utilities Inc.
- This is the natural gas utility at the center of the investigation into the March 24 explosion at the RM Palmer Co. plant in West Reading.
- The powerful natural gas explosion killed seven people. The Public Utility Commission says state law protects the reports from public disclosure.
Federal safety investigators on Monday subpoenaed Pennsylvania’s utility regulator for documents related to a deadly explosion at a chocolate factory, escalating a months-long legal dispute over the state agency’s authority to share sensitive information.
The National Transportation Safety Board said the Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission refused to provide unredacted inspection and investigation reports for UGI Utilities Inc., the natural gas utility at the center of the investigation into the The March 24 explosion at the RM Palmer Co. plant in the West. While reading.
The powerful natural gas explosion leveled one building, severely damaged another and killed seven people. Investigators previously said they were looking into two gas leaks as a possible cause or contributor to the explosion.
The interagency dispute over five years of UGI records involved a conflict between state and federal law.
The Public Utilities Commission said it could not provide the documents in the format required by the security agency, citing a state law that protects “confidential security information” on key utility infrastructure against public disclosure, even to other government agencies.
The commission said it offered security investigators the opportunity to inspect the reports at its Harrisburg office or sign a nondisclosure agreement, but the federal agency declined.
“This is a unique situation in which a federal agency requires the PUC to violate state law,” PUC spokesman Nils Hagen-Frederiksen said in a written statement. “It is unfortunate that the NTSB has rejected possible solutions to this problem, but we continue to work to resolve this impasse.
The security office said federal regulations gave it the right to utility company records and claimed the PUC was required to turn them over.
Because federal law preempts state law, NTSB Chair Jennifer L. Homendy wrote to the chairman of the state’s Public Utilities Commission, the PUC “has no legal basis to refuse the…NTSB inspection reports in any manner.”
In addition to issuing the subpoena, the security agency said it also barred the Public Utilities Commission from playing any additional role in the federal investigation.
“The actions of the PA PUC have highlighted a lack of cooperation and respect for our party processes and prevent your continued participation in the investigation,” Homendy wrote.
About 70 Palmer production workers and 35 office employees were working in two adjacent buildings at the time of the explosion. Employees at both buildings told federal investigators they could smell gas before the explosion. Workers at the plant accused Palmer of ignoring warnings about a natural gas leak, saying the plant, located in a small town 60 miles northwest of Philadelphia, should have been evacuated.