Secrecy in PA regulations leads to fatal Hickory Hills Propane Explosion
A fatal propane explosion at Hickory Hills mobile home park in Moore Township, P.A., claimed the life of resident William Neith, 65, over a year ago. Recently, it has been uncovered that miscommunication between the agency that owns that mobile home park and the Public Utilities Commission (PUC), the commission under state law responsible to ensure the safety of such private pipelines, could have prevented this fatal explosion.
In January of 2014, a workman arrived to fix a broken heater at the mobile home of William Neith and his girlfriend, Hilda Parsons. The heat started working but with it came an odd odor. When Parsons complained about a strong odor of gas after the regulator was replaced, a self-employed handyman visited the home twice. He told police that although he could smell gas, he found no leaks, the police report says. Nonetheless, he replaced a cracked nut on a gas fitting and a section of steel pipe.The handyman told police Parsons called him to say the problem appeared to be fixed and he didn’t hear from her again.The force used to remove the faulty gas regulator cracked a deteriorated steel pipe that supplied propane from the community’s 30,000-gallon tank and allowed the gas to leak into Parson’s and Neith’s home. The odor was so strong that Neith began lighting candles to cover the odor. According to investigators, a candle’s open flame or a pilot light from an appliance may have ignited the explosion that killed Neith on February 14, 2014.
Parsons told police that on the day Neith died, the odor of gas was so strong their cat had been throwing up. She searched the Internet for signs of propane poisoning and found that pets vomiting could be an indicator. The explosion that killed Neith forced scattered debris for 100 yards in every direction and rendered two nearby mobile homes unlivable. Neith’s body was found beneath the debris nearly four hours later.
Continental Communities owns the Hickory Hills mobile home park and was reported to have known for years that the propane pipes beneath Hickory Hills were leaky. According to the PUC complaint and documents, a contractor advised the company in 2006 of eight leaks and recommended replacing hundreds of feet of pipe immediately. The contractor’s report to Hickory Hills also recommended replacing the remaining metal pipe with plastic over a number of years to conduct regular leak checks.”There is no universal database of these small systems,” PUC spokeswoman Robin Tilley said. “And we don’t know about them if they don’t report. All we can do is make examples of them when we find them.”
In 2012, John Boehm, manager of Hickory Hills, sought proposals to replace the lines, the complaint and documents show. However, it is unclear what work was accomplished. Two years before the fatal explosion, Hickory Hills resident Thomas Bollar, who lived a few doors from Neith, reported a gas odor, workers dug up his yard, but no leak was found. A year before the blast, Bollar reported again to the Hickory Hills manager, complaining of the gas odor. According to a state police report, he was told,”The lines to the community pool needed to be replaced and they took priority over [Bollar’s] house.” Three months before Neith’s death, Bollar complained for a third time, but workers still found no leak. On the day of the explosion, the odor was “extremely strong,” according to Bollar.
Neith’s family reached an agreement with Continental Communities without filing a lawsuit.Their attorney, Benjamin Lichtman of Allentown, said the terms are confidential but that documents the company provided in response to his threat of legal action paint a disturbing picture. The lack of communication between departments tasked with ensuring the safe delivery of propane, highlights a weakness that Act 127 was designed to improve. Signed into law in November 2011, Act 127, was meant to provide more oversight of gas supply systems. More than three years after the law took effect, state regulators still have no clear picture of how many private gas systems exist across Pennsylvania.