Broward County

Florida tries to unravel mystery mall explosion. Was it gas or something else?

Within minutes of the gas explosion that leveled a Plantation strip mall and injured 23, Rick Moses’ phone was buzzing with messages.

The head of the state program in charge of natural gas safety and inspections quickly dispatched an inspector to the site along with the state fire marshal on Saturday.

But two days after the massive explosion that leveled one end of mall, state regulators were still searching for answers.

“It’s going to take some time to get an investigation like this completed,’‘ said Moses, chief of safety for the Florida Public Service Commission’s Division of Engineering.

Working with the state Fire Marshal, they will determine the cause of the explosion and whether it was the responsibility of the gas company or the customer, Moses said.

A spokesman for State Fire Marshal Jimmy Patronis, a former PSC commissioner who handled several natural gas regulation cases, said Monday the agency couldn’t release any updates on the investigation because it was still an open investigation.

On Monday morning, some customers and employees returned to the scene to recover vehicles and personal belongings they left behind after Saturday’s blast. Plantation police said businesses at The Fountains mall on University Drive, across from the strip center where the blast occurred, were cleared to reopen later in the day.

Authorities continued to remove scraps of metal, ceiling tiles and cement from the blast area.

The scene at the Fountains Plaza in Plantation where an explosion injured multiple people on Saturday, July 6, 2019. Joshua Prezant For the Miami Herald

Moses said he hoped to have an answer on what led to the blast by the end of the week but the level of destruction may make it difficult.

He said one of the first steps is to get a reading as to when and how much gas was flowing into the building when the explosion occurred. Tenants of a nearby building told the Herald they noticed the strong odor of gas emanating from the building on Saturday.

Peoples Gas said in a statement that technicians “found no natural gas leaks” in their system, although firefighters did report a ruptured natural gas pipe.

Peoples Gas is responsible for maintaining the line to the point of the gas meter, Moses said, but from the gas meter to the building, “It’s the customer’s responsibility to maintain.”

Was work being done on the line or at the building? Neither Peoples Gas nor state regulators had an answer for that on Monday.

Cherie Jacobs, a spokesperson for Peoples Gas, said Monday the utility has not done any recent work near the scene of the blast that could’ve led to a leak or an explosion.

According to PSC records, the U.S. Department of Transportation has issued a bulletin recommending the urgent replacement of cast iron and bare steel pipes that deliver natural gas to homes and businesses. The pipes are corroding, risking dangerous leaks and flawed inspections.

The PSC has authorized Peoples Gas to charge customers a rider to pay for replacing the pipes and, in exchange, agreed to an accelerated project to replace them with pipes that will last longer.

Jacobs also said Peoples Gas has not replaced pipes in Plantation in recent months or years, and the company conducted an inspection in May in the area and found no leaks.

The PSC is charged with inspecting every gas system in the state annually. That includes reviewing the company’s records, leak reports, hazardous leaks, surveying the steel pipes to determine if they are sufficiently protected from corrosion and making sure new and replacement pipes are being installed by qualified personnel.

But Peoples Gas has a clouded record. In 2016, the company agreed to pay a $1 million fine and give its customers $2 million in credits for falsifying leak-inspection reports in Ocala in 2014.

Peoples Gas has since said it took corrective actions to clean up its record. It disciplined several employees and hired external auditors to conduct an investigation to ensure compliance with its settlement agreement.