Blast at JJ’s restaurant opens dispute over permits

02/27/2013 11:21 AM

08/06/2014 12:57 AM

On one point there’s full agreement between Kansas City officials and the contractor that was boring underground near JJ’s restaurant before last week’s fatal natural-gas explosion.

Both acknowledge Heartland Midwest LLC did not have a valid city permit for that work.

But that’s not to say Olathe-based Heartland didn’t try to get one — and that’s where the disagreement now exists.

The application alone wasn’t good enough to begin work, the city says. It was, according to the company, and it had become common practice to begin work while applications were pending.

On Wednesday, the company released a photocopy of a permit application dated Feb. 6, nearly two weeks before the blast, asking for permission to dig under the street in front of the restaurant. But the city never responded, an attorney for Heartland said.

Nor did the company hear back from city permitting officials when Heartland faxed in a request for a corresponding traffic control permit on Feb. 13, said the attorney, Brad Russell.

Even so, Heartland went ahead without either permit on the day of the explosion, Feb 19, because it was the company’s “pattern and practice,” Russell said, to go ahead unless told otherwise.

“It was our understanding,” he said, “that it was acceptable to initiate the work pending formal approval. In other words, the initiation of excavation did not need to wait for formal written approval from the city.”

As long as a permit application was on file, it was assumed that work could proceed, Russell said. He declined to comment when asked whether someone at City Hall had confirmed that arrangement, saying only:

“To our knowledge, we’ve never been fined, sent a formal notice or heard a complaint from the city before Feb. 19, 2013, regarding the practice of initiating work as long as an application was on file when the work was initiated.”

Although officials with companies in the same line of work as Heartland were reluctant to comment for the record, one said it wasn’t unusual to begin work without a permit because of delays at City Hall.

Heartland’s response to the permit issue came after City Manager Troy Schulte and other city officials said Monday that Heartland failed to secure the needed permit to excavate, adding that Heartland only sought permission the day after the blast.

But Pat Klein, assistant city manager, acknowledged Wednesday that there was more to it than that.

Indeed, Heartland said its application for an excavation permit on the day after the blast was more of a reminder to the city of its previous attempts to get permits.

For the city to leave out that context, Russell said, “seems completely and utterly irresponsible to us.”

Wednesday’s interview with The Star comprised the company’s first substantive public statements since the gas leak and explosion that leveled JJ’s, a popular bar and restaurant in the Country Club Plaza area, more than a week ago. One person was killed and 15 were injured.

Klein said Wednesday that the city still has no record of the company’s application in its files.

“We can’t find that document anywhere,” he said.

However, he acknowledged that there could have been a mixup at City Hall on the permits. The log for the city fax machine where permit applications come in confirms that something was sent to that number by Heartland on both dates the company said it filed its application for excavation and traffic control permits.

Both permits concerned digging work at 900 W. 48th Place, just feet away from JJ’s at 910 W. 48th Place.

Klein didn’t know whether the original faxes were lost or the fax machine malfunctioned.

Klein said the city does not condone working without a formal permit and says permits are typically issued within two days of application.

But he also acknowledged that the permit process has broken down some in the last couple of years.

The purpose behind the permits is for the city to know where digging is going on so it can follow up and make sure streets and sidewalks will be restored after work is completed. Until a year or two ago, the city charged minimum fees of $143 for excavation permits.

But Kansas City began waiving those fees for all telecommunications companies laying fiber-optic cable after Google Fiber arranged that deal for installation of its ultrafast Internet service in March 2011, Klein said. Heartland was doing work for Time Warner Cable on the day of the explosion.

When the fee was charged, Klein said, there was a more formal emphasis on when work could begin.

“Previously you had a clear point in time, you knew you were not getting the permit without the payment,” Klein said. “Now when you submit, there’s not a ‘you haven’t paid for that’ sort of thing.”

The series of events that led up to the blast is under investigation by federal, state and local authorities. The Kansas City Fire Department will issue its report as early as Friday, but possibly next week. That report will likely be brief, Fire Chief Paul Berardi said.

The Missouri Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities, plans an extensive investigation that won’t be finished for months.

In answer to some speculation that there were no markings at the site, Russell released a photograph taken in the hours prior to the blast showing the utility lines were marked on the street outside JJ’s.

Russell also asked that the public and officials refrain from speculating as to the cause of the blast. Indeed, he said, there is no definitive proof yet that Heartland workers punctured a gas line, even though one of the company’s workers told a 911 dispatcher that’s what happened an hour before the explosion.

While it’s perhaps likely that’s what happened, he said, no one will know for sure until authorities finish investigations that have been hampered by two major snowstorms.

“Until we are able to look underground, we are likely to have more questions than answers,” he said.

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