Whistleblower: Her car was torched and finances trashed

  • Article by: ALEJANDRA MATOS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 12, 2013 - 1:57 PM

Two years after a gas line explosion, woman can't get CenterPoint Energy or city to pony up.

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It was a memorable St. Patrick’s Day in south Minneapolis two years ago when a gas line exploded at 60th Street and Nicollet Avenue. The force of the blast torched vehicles, one of which was Necole Berglund’s, in the Cub Foods parking lot. No one was injured.

Photo: Brian Peterson , Star Tribune

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Necole Berglund remembers the morning well — she had lent her car to her roommate, Ashley Stiles, to go to Cub Foods for some eggs and bacon. Then Stiles called, in a panic.

“Oh my God,” Stiles told Berglund. “I think your car is torched.”

At 8:35 a.m. on March 17, 2011, an underground gas line near 60th Street and Nicollet Avenue S. in Minneapolis exploded, sending a fireball into the sky and forcing the evacuation of six surrounding blocks. Miraculously, no one was injured, but the blast melted the sign of the Cub Foods and scorched two dozen vehicles in the Cub parking lot, including Berglund’s 1999 Pontiac Grand Am, whose back end and underside were fried.

Nearly two years later, Berglund is struggling to make car payments on her new vehicle while waiting for someone to take responsibility for the destruction of her car. A state report released in October says it was CenterPoint Energy’s improper fitting of joints on the pipeline that allowed it to leak. But CenterPoint, which owns the gas line, blames the city of Minneapolis for failing to prevent erosion from a nearby sewer and water main, which it says damaged its own pipe. The city rejects that explanation.

The day after the explosion, Berglund contacted CenterPoint to file a claim, in hopes the company would at least pay her $500 insurance deductible. She said the company gave her a claim number and the phone number for a claims representative.

She went nearly four months without a car before she paid $7,000 for a 2003 Honda Civic. She got only $2,000 from the insurance payout from her totaled Grand Am, which she had bought the year before for $5,200.

“My parents had to help me out a bit, and I wasn’t able to pay some of my other bills,” Berglund, 30, who works in child care. “I would have to pick and choose what I could afford to pay at the time. That was an extra $150 a month that I could not afford.”

Each time she contacted CenterPoint she was told the company was still investigating the matter and nothing could be done until all investigations were concluded. When Berglund and her mother Tina McMillan finally saw the Minnesota Office of Pipeline Safety report in October, they thought that was the end of the story.

“From what I understood, the report said it was CenterPoint’s fault,” Berglund said. “We started calling again because that’s what they said we had to wait for.”

In the report, the state agency concluded the blast occured as a result of the pipe’s inability to handle the weight of the area’s soil, road and traffic. The gas leak, the report said, was “a result of mechanical fitting failures” in a connection of the gas line. What ignited the leaking gas is unknown.

After the explosion, the company said it voluntarily identified other high-risk locations and reinforced those pipes. But CenterPoint rejected the state’s explanation for the leak.

Rebecca Virden, a spokeswoman for CenterPoint, said the company’s third-party investigation, conducted by Crane Engineering, “came to the definitive conclusion that the incident was caused by a soil washout beneath the gas pipeline.”

CenterPoint said Crane determined the city’s storm sewer and water main, located under the gas pipe, were “in a deteriorated and fractured condition.” Water seeped out, creating a washout which weakened the soil and caused the gas pipe to bend and leak gas, she said.

Virden said Centerpoint’s gas line was properly installed and complied with all standards, so the company bears “no causal responsibility for the formation of the soil washout cavity beneath” the pipe or “the ensuing incident.”

The city is having none of it.

“The city of Minneapolis disagrees with CenterPoint’s interpretation of the Office of Pipeline Safety’s report,” said city spokesman Casper Hill. “The report— which finds CenterPoint, not the city of Minneapolis, responsible for the explosion — speaks for itself.”

The Minnesota Office of Pipeline Safety also stands by its report, and spokesman Doug Neville said it has closed the case. The office did not assess a fine against CenterPoint.

Nearly two years after the incident, Berglund said she has yet to receive anything in writing from CenterPoint. Virden, the spokeswoman, said CenterPoint will be sending a statement in writing to those who have filed claims with the company. She said she was unable to disclose how many people have filed claims in relation to the blast because of privacy issues.

Berglund said she’s not optimistic that she’ll be compensated, but continues to believe someone needs to be held responsible.

“Eventually they are going to have to do something about it,” Berglund said. “I don’t know how they are going to come up with some sort of solution if they keep blaming each other.”

Alejandra Matos • 612-673-4028
Twitter: @amatos12

 

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