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Fines levied after fatal blast levels Mo. eatery

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) -- The federal government said Thursday it is seeking a $161,000 fine against a cable company subcontractor after a fatal explosion leveled a Kansas City restaurant.

The U.S. Department of Labor said in a news release that Olathe, Kan.-based Heartland Midwest was being cited for two willful and three serious violations after a crew breached a natural gas supply line Feb. 19 with a horizontal drilling machine. The blast that came that evening leveled JJ's restaurant near the Country Club Plaza, a busy outdoor shopping area. One restaurant worker died and 15 other people were injured.

"This explosion was a tragic event that stemmed from errors on behalf of Heartland Midwest," said Marcia Drumm, acting regional administrator for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in Kansas City. "It is heartbreaking that a person was killed, and numerous employees were severely injured as a result of these violations."

Heartland attorney Brad Russell disputed the allegations and said in a written statement that Missouri Gas Energy, which owned the gas line that was ruptured, and the utility locating service didn't provide the cable contractor the depth of the gas line or correct number of utility lines in the area.

"Heartland is disappointed that OSHA has decided to issue ill-founded and unsubstantiated allegations that are neither supported by facts or even law under these circumstances," the statement said.

Among the willful violations, OSHA alleges Heartland failed to provide its employees with a workplace "free of recognized hazards" while boring underground and crossing the paths of existing utilities. The second willful violation alleged the company failed to ensure all crew members were equipped with footwear that protected them from electrocution while boring near underground electric lines.

OSHA defines a willful violation as one committed with intentional knowing or voluntary disregard for the law's requirements or with plain indifference to worker safety and health.

The serious violations, defined as those with a substantial probability of death or serious physical harm, include claims that Heartland failed to ensure workers were qualified to operate the equipment and instructed to avoid hazards. OSHA said no training or certification records could be produced for the drilling equipment operator. And the agency found that although the drilling equipment manufacturer requires workers to read the machine's operating manual, the operator wasn't provided a Spanish version, even though he neither speaks nor reads English.

The release also noted that the company didn't prevent a worker from smoking after the gas line was breached.

Because of the violations, OSHA placed Heartland in a severe violator program that focuses on "recalcitrant employers that endanger workers."

JJ's also faces a proposed $2,000 penalty for having a deficient emergency action plan. But Steve Emerson, an attorney for JJ's, stressed that JJ's employees had evacuated all of the patrons safely and were in the process of evacuating themselves when the explosion occurred.

The release also said OSHA initially opened an investigation into Missouri Gas Energy, whose workers responded to the scene before the blast. But OSHA determined that the Missouri Public Service Commission, the state agency that regulates utilities, had jurisdictional authority. The release said the commission's initial report into what happened is expected to be released in September.

Missouri Gas Energy spokeswoman Vicki Granado said the company continues to "cooperate with all the regulatory agencies that are involved in the investigation."