An attorney for the Metropolitan Utilities District told its board members that lawsuits are likely in the wake of the Jan. 9 fire, fed by natural gas, that destroyed an Old Market building.
The board met Wednesday for the first time since the explosion and fire. The seven-member board discussed the fire in open session for about 15 minutes. It didn’t hold a closed session on the matter.
Board member Tom Dowd moved for a closed session but withdrew the motion. He said later that because of the discussion during the open meeting, a closed session wasn’t necessary.
Ronald Bucher, general counsel for the utility company, said he would caution board members if their questions during the meeting strayed into legal matters, but he didn’t give such a warning.
MUD’s responsibility for the fire, if any, is uncertain. One issue for MUD is the time that it took to shut off the gas feeding the blaze. MUD controls natural gas lines in the area.
Bucher said any conclusion about the timing of the shutoff “clearly calls for speculation” and is a topic that might be raised during litigation.
Omaha fire officials have said a contractor, North Central Service, was drilling to install underground fiber optics when it hit an MUD gas line, allowing escaping gas to gather in the lower level of M’s Pub, where it exploded.
North Central has not returned calls seeking comment.
MUD technicians arrived about 23 minutes after the explosion and, after locating the correct valve, shut off gas feeding the fire 72 minutes later. To avoid the risk of another explosion, fire crews waited to extinguish the fire until the gas was turned off.
Bucher said MUD disclosed information about the fire after receiving public records requests. The World-Herald filed such a request and used the resulting information in late January to report that the utility’s workers at the fire initially focused on turning off a gas line that hadn’t been active since 2009.
Bucher said he withheld some information because he deemed it attorney-client information that is exempt from public records disclosure. The withheld information, he said, was mostly interviews with MUD employees.
Bucher said MUD’s own investigation — as well as investigations by Omaha and state fire officials — was still underway. The next step is for investigators to enter the building and determine how the gas entered M’s Pub and was ignited. But the building has not yet be deemed safe to enter.
Because of the fire, board member Tim Cavanaugh said, the utility should carry out a “full and total review of the safety procedures.” He praised MUD crews at the scene for working in difficult conditions, including cold temperatures and crowds.
Scott Keep, MUD’s chief executive, said the district was reviewing its procedures and training “to see how we can do things better.”
Board member Dave Friend said the district’s management has been open in discussing what its staff did during the fire and plans to review procedures in light of what happened that day.