Washington state regulators announced late last Friday that Spokane-based Avista Utilities has agreed to pay a $200,000 fine for actions that the regulators' staff concluded resulted in a December 2008 distribution pipeline explosion and fire that destroyed part of a home and injured two people.

Washington's Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC) must approve the staff-recommended settlement before it can be effective. A UTC spokesperson did not speculate how soon the three-member regulatory panel will act on the settlement.

UTC Pipeline Safety Program investigators earlier concluded that the explosion was caused by a leak from a cracked section of plastic natural gas distribution pipeline that they allege was improperly installed. Avista and the UTC staff reached the settlement, under which the combination utility will pay a fine and make operating and training changes in its gas system.

The incident destroyed part of a home in Odessa, WA, injuring two of its occupants. The UTC said the two injured people reached separate legal settlements with the utility.

Regulatory staff filed a complaint last June in which it alleged that Avista violated two state agency rules by installing pipe without adequate support and protection, and prematurely removing the damaged pipeline section after the incident.

UTC staff concluded "there is a direct link between the improper installation of the pipe and the gas leak that resulted in the explosion and in serious personal injury and property damage." That signed staff statement is part of the agreement Avista has signed.

The staff conclusions, however, are not binding on the regulators, and they could decide to reject or amend the settlement.

As part of the agreement, in addition to the monetary penalty, Avista agreed to take specific actions to ensure that its gas pipeline system is safe and in compliance with state regulations. For example, Avista has agreed to train local city/county personnel for excavations in areas outfitted with plastic pipe. Other settlement terms call for the utility to perform annual leak surveys on plastic pipe that was installed prior to 1987. Avista installed the plastic pipe in Odessa in 1981.

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