Muscatine, IA – LP safety practices crucial to avid deadly explosions

By Cynthia Beaudette

MUSCATINE, Iowa – The July 8 liquid propane (LP) gas explosion that leveled the rural Muscatine home of Claude and Norma Dickey is the only such incident Muscatine Fire Chief Steve Dalbey recalls during his 24 years with the local fire department.

Capt. David Lerch says the tragedy that claimed one life is the first LP-related explosion he’s known of since joining the Muscatine County Sheriff’s Office 15 years ago.

Jeffrey Quigle, fire prevention bureau supervisor at the Iowa Fire Marshall’s Office, confirms that LP gas explosions are rare in Iowa.

But when LP explosions do occur, they are deadly. Norma Dickey, 61, died from her wounds and her 68-year-old husband remains hospitalized with serious injuries.

And a Wisconsin woman continues her effort to inform the public of LP safety practices after losing members of her family in a 1999 gas explosion in Richland, Iowa.

According to an investigation by the Iowa Fire Marshall’s Office, Muscatine County Sheriff’s Office and the Wilton Fire Department, an LP tank outside the Dickeys’ home fed the gas into their residence.

LP gas apparently escaped from the line and, according to the report, a spark from an electrical appliance in the basement ignited the gas and caused an explosion. The report did not say where the leak originated from.

Seven members of another Iowa family died almost five years ago in an explosion that was attributed to a nick in an LP gas line outside the home in Richland.

Wanda Countryman-Fillner, now of Onalaska, Wis., lost her parents, three of her sisters, her brother-in-law and six-year-old niece in the Sept. 6, 1999, incident.

Countryman-Fillner said her brother-in-law, Jerry Usovsky, was building a dog pen in his backyard when he drove a fence post into the ground and nicked the gas line without knowing it about 24 hours before the explosion.

Deb Grooms, executive director of the Iowa Propane Gas Association, said LP is colorless, odorless and flammable. It is stored as a liquid under pressure but if it leaks, it becomes a gas that can be ignited by a spark or flame. Grooms said people who work on their own home repairs or construction jobs can disturb an LP gas line and not realize it.

Unprofessional installation of LP fueled appliances is another potential source of trouble, she said.

“If someone puts in a new appliance such as a hot water heater or a stove, anything that runs on gas, it should be done by a professional,” Grooms said. “Some people try to do this on their own and that’s a big problem in Iowa right now.”

Sometimes people who leave a rental unit and take their gas-fed appliances with them may leave the gas line open and allow gas to enter the area, Grooms said.

New laws in effect

Grooms said recent legislation may discourage people from damaging piping or leaving it open.

“As of Jan. 1, 2003, anyone who works on a propane system must be trained and it must be documented,” said Grooms. “And they must be in refresher training every three years.”

A newer law allows evidence to be brought into court that proves an unlicensed person worked on a gas line. In the past, this evidence was not admissible in personal injury cases related to propane explosions, Grooms said.

There are other measures that can help ensure a gas line is operating properly.

The State of Iowa has adopted the National Fire Protection Association’s requirements regarding situations where an LP tank has run out of gas. That means anyone delivering propane to a customer with an empty tank must test for leakage before the system begins operating again.

This check may come with an additional fee for the customer.

Grooms said a check on the gas line also needs to be done any time there’s an interruption of the propane system.

LP distributors add a chemical to LP gas that smells like rotten eggs to alert people to leaks.

However, Countryman-Fillner and Grooms say some people may not smell it.

Many times, people aged 65 and older have a diminished sense of smell. In addition, Countryman-Fillner said the additive may fade or be absorbed into soil, furniture or concrete.

Detectors not widely used

Countryman-Fillner said in-home detecting units that are developed to alert people to the presence of LP gas leaks are available in some hardware and home improvement stores, but she doesn’t think enough people know about them.

After learning that gas detectors have existed for 20 years, Countryman-Fillner and six other defendants filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the gas company. They settled with the gas retailer for the full insurance policy limit.

Countryman-Fillner said the lawsuit was filed to cover medical costs for her sister and her sister’s friend who were injured in the accident. She said she hopes the suit will convince the industry to become more safety-oriented and support the use of gas detectors.

David Buddingh, a representative for MTI Industries, an Illinois manufacturer of gas detectors, said 180,000 Iowa households receive LP gas. Spokespersons for the Department of Natural Resources and Iowa Propane Gas Association said they could not confirm this number.

Countryman-Fillner estimates it would cost about $6 million to provide these households with LP gas detectors.

Buddingh said his company does most of its business with the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association. Buddingh said the RV industry set a standard in 1996 calling for the installation of propane detecting devices in the 300,000 RVs purchased each year.

Quigle said the detectors he’s read about appear affordable and effective.

“I would really encourage LP users to use these,” said Quigle. “I think they enhance the safety of your residence.”

Grooms said the Iowa Propane Gas Association does not provide the detectors and questions whether or not there has not been enough testing to prove they are effective.

Grooms recommends that people who do purchase them make sure they are approved by Underwriters Laboratories.

A combination carbon monoxide and explosive gas alarm is available locally at Menards at the Muscatine Mall for $48.88. Home Hardware, located at 1716 West 37th St. in Davenport, carries in-home gas detecting devices for about $50.

Spokespersons for both stores said the detectors they sell are UL listed.

Cynthia Beaudette can be reached at 563-263-2331 (ext. 323) or

Web sites

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