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Sneed daughter alleges regulator failure contributed to fatal explosion

Monday, September 17, 2012 | 3:37 p.m. CDT; updated 5:15 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, September 19, 2012

*A previous version of this article misstated the functions of the regulators.

COLUMBIA — A daughter of the Columbia couple who died as the result of a natural gas explosion in 2008 alleged Monday that "a lack of overpressure protection in a 29-year-old gas regulator" outside her parents' home was the cause of the blast.

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Patricia "Penny" Sneed read a statement aloud on the steps to the Boone County Courthouse after a hearing in which Circuit Judge Jodie Asel approved a settlement in the wrongful death lawsuit against Ameren Missouri in the East Campus explosion.

The daughters of Carl and Merna Sneed — Penny Sneed, Terry L. Sneed and Pamela R. Heath — filed the lawsuit in June 2008 after their parents' home at 308 McNab Drive exploded and burned on March 14, 2008. The blast killed Carl Sneed, 87, and threw Merna Sneed, 85, roughly 20 feet from the house. She suffered burns on over 40 percent of her body and died three weeks later at University Hospital.

Based on the utility's July 2008 response to the lawsuit, Ameren likely would have sought to persuade a jury that the Sneeds didn't "properly react to the odor of leaking gas," didn't take reasonable precautions and didn't maintain "their natural gas appliances, equipment and piping." The company repeated its response in an amended complaint filed in September 2011.

The case was scheduled to go to trial Sept. 11.

The Missourian sent a series of questions related to the regulator at the Sneeds' home and regulators in general to Ameren on Friday. The utility responded: "Ameren Missouri has settled with the family of Carl and Merna Sneed. The terms of the settlement are confidential." The Missourian's email did not ask about the settlement or its terms.

In her statement Monday, Penny Sneed said her belief in the cause of the explosion was based on "extensive investigation by our experts and the efforts of our attorneys" and that what they found validated allegations in the family's first amended petition: that lack of overpressure protection in the gas regulator on the meter outside her parents' house in the East Campus neighborhood was to blame.

A service regulator on a residential natural gas set, which comprises the gas meter, the riser, regulator and connecting pipes, controls the flow of gas into a home. *An older regulator that lacks internal relief vents some of the gas outside in the event of a malfunction, but does not shut off flow to the house. The new regulators have an internal relief valve that stops gas flow into the house when high pressure or high flow occurs.

"I have no reason to believe that there was any fault whatsoever on the part of my parents," Penny Sneed said.

The daughters' lawsuit against Ameren Missouri alleged "negligent conduct, acts, omissions and practices" by the utility as the probable or contributing cause of the explosion. The plaintiffs, represented by Kansas City attorney Neil Johnson, were also seeking damages for aggravating circumstances.

The lawsuit, Ameren Missouri's legal response to it, depositions, motions and some exhibits examined by the Missourian show that the plaintiffs' case focused on the service pressure regulator at the Sneed house and how its alleged failure caused excessive gas pressure to build up in the basement.

According to court documents filed by the plaintiff, the service regulator at Carl and Merna Sneed’s home was likely installed in 1979.

The plaintiffs alleged that Ameren kept no records of the make and model. Timothy Dunn, an expert in explosion and fire investigations hired by the plaintiffs, said in a deposition he believed the regulator at the Sneeds' home was an American-brand Model 1823B. He said that it was likely this model because that was the same model found at neighboring homes and part numbers on the 1823B regulator match American’s 1800 series of regulators.

According to a deposition given in April by Fred Luetkemeier, an Ameren superintendent of gas operations and engineering, experts found a Model 1823B service regulator at the home of Portia Brown at 314 McNab, next to the Sneeds. The Model 1823B lacked an internal relief valve.

Ameren stopped installing regulators that lacked internal relief in 1984, but many remained in use, according to court documents filed by the plaintiffs.

A timeline in the document alleged that in 2002, Ameren changed the Sneeds' meter to enable automated reading but didn't update the regulator, according to a motion related to evidence submitted in support of aggravating circumstance damages.

The timeline also states that in 2007, Fischer Controls recalled 1,200 regulators that lacked internal relief, instructing customers to immediately contact the company. According to court documents, Fischer said: “Gas can leak from regulator's flanges when flange screw heads break, posing a fire or explosion hazard to consumers.”

According to a report from expert witness Dunn, 1,800 cubic feet of natural gas were measured going into the Sneeds' home in the 11 hours before the explosion. In the 10 days before the explosion, natural gas metered into the home ranged between 200 and 500 cubic feet.

In his April deposition, Luetkemeier, who supervised the investigation at the Sneeds' residence on the day of the explosion, said that in practice Ameren did not replace service regulators until they created problems.

According to a transcript of that deposition:

"Question: Okay. With regard to service regulators on residential customer meter set assemblies, tell ... what Ameren’s program has been with regard to having a rigid program of preventative maintenance?

"Luetkemeier: On a service regulator the way we deal with them is unless they are creating problems in the field, leaks or such, then they, they remain out there and in operation.

"Question: Indefinitely?

"Luetkemeier: As long as we’re not having problems with them."

In her statement, Penny Sneed emphasized that one of her primary goals in investigating the explosion in the first place was to prevent other incidents. "It is my sincere hope that our efforts in this litigation might make things safer in the future for natural gas customers everywhere."

Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.


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