CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Several Sissonville residents sued NiSource and its subsidiary, Columbia Gas Transmission, in Kanawha Circuit Court on Monday over December's massive gas line explosion and fire.
In seven separate lawsuits, the residents allege the companies and others didn't "exercise due care" in maintaining the transmission pipeline that ruptured.
The Dec. 11 explosion and blaze destroyed houses, sent flames shooting nearly 100 feet into the air on both sides of Interstate 77, and melted asphalt and guardrails on the highway. No one was killed or seriously injured.
The blast occurred on a 20-inch-diameter natural gas transmission line segment that was installed in 1967, according to a preliminary National Transportation Safety Board report.
The lawsuits, filed for the residents by Warner Law Offices of Charleston, allege the companies failed to adequately train employees in safety inspection in regard to maintaining the gas transmission lines. They also claim inadequate training in emergency response.
Also named as defendants in the case are company employees who were involved in managing how NiSource and Columbia Gas inspect and repair pipelines, or in the direct response to the Sissonville explosion.
Those employees are William Christian, director of gas control for NiSource's Columbia Natural Gas Transmission subsidiary; Jack Whitmire Jr. and Mitchell G. Thomas, corrosion technicians or specialists for Columbia Transmission; and Daniel Herpin, the manager of corrosion for Columbia Transmission.
When the NTSB released a collection of investigation documents in June, the agency made public transcripts of interviews with a variety of company employees, including the four who are now named in the lawsuit. The transcripts describe the roles each employee played, and offered new details about the incident.
For example, Christian said the company's biggest problem was trying to narrow down the exact location of the rupture.
"My biggest challenge was making sure that where the line break was, which side of the valve segments that it was, so that we could make sure we had the right valves," Christian told the NTSB.
A preliminary NTSB report said the first notification to NiSource of the event came from a Cabot Oil and Gas controller who had received a report of a rupture from a field technician who was near the accident location. NTSB officials estimate the explosion took place at about 12:41 p.m. and the call to NiSource from Cabot at about 12:53 p.m.
NTSB officials have also said the pipeline was not equipped with automatic or remote shutoff valves. NiSource crews, the NTSB has said, were not able to manually shut off the flow of gas to the fire until 1:45 p.m.
All of the lawsuits claim the residents suffered mental anguish, anxiety, humiliation, fear and stress, among other things. They lost personal property and their homes are diminished in value, the suit states. Plaintiffs also are asking for an award of punitive damages.
"Some of the families whose homes are still inhabitable have really gone through a lot because they fear being in their homes because of what they've been through, and no one will buy those homes because basically that whole area is tainted and there's a fear of being there," said attorney Bobby Warner.