CALGARY – Ground Zero Grading Inc. was fined $25,000 on Wednesday (June 19) in Calgary Provincial Court after entering a guilty plea to charges that stemmed from a 2015 gas explosion that caused millions in damages to a residential neighbourhood in Canmore.
In addition to the guilty plea from the company, its lawyer Christopher Spasoff and Crown prosecutor JP Quenneville made a joint submission on the recommended sentence to Judge W. Cummings.
“We have a company that is trying to do the right thing and wants to do the right thing,” Spasoff said.
Originally two companies and two individuals were charged after a two-year investigation resulted in 13 charges under Alberta’s Occupational Health and Safety regulations after excavation work on the Bow River Senior’s Lodge expansion struck ATCO gas line and resulted in an explosion in June 2015. The general contractor APM Construction, the lead site supervisor Jerry Arbeau, the subcontractor Ground Zero Grading Inc., and Ground Zero heavy equipment operator Andrew Pacaud initially all pleaded not-guilty to the charges against them.
Earlier this year, legal counsel for Ground Zero Grading Inc. indicated the company would enter a guilty plea before the judge. The guilty plea was accepted on Wednesday and as a result, charges against Pacaud were withdrawn.
“This is a complicated set of facts,” Justice Cummings commented after the presentation of an agreed statement of facts by the Crown.
The judge also gave the Crown the opportunity to “stand down and consider” the case, but Crown and defence stood by their joint submission.
According to the agreed statement of facts, Ground Zero Grading Inc. failed to ensure steps were taken to re-establish the locate marks for the underground gas line after work activities destroyed them earlier that day, contrary to the Occupational Health and Safety Codes.
“Consequences for a purely regulatory offence sends a clear message that locates needs to be done and it sends a message to other organizations that you need to promptly do [that, especially] in residential areas,” Quenneville said.
“It’s a smaller established company. I would not suggest a crushing fine to put it [out of] business.”
In 2015, APM Construction Service was hired by the province as the primary contractor on site for the expansion of the Bow River Seniors Lodge. APM subsequently contracted the excavation work to Ground Zero Grading Inc.
The initial plan indicated a conflict between the footprint of the new building and an existing gas line where the terms of the contract stated APM would be responsible for arranging the relocation of the residential gas line that was still providing gas to the lodge. APM was quoted $8,300 to have the line moved.
After the subcontractor started excavating, Ground Zero brought up concerns about the residential gas line still in place and insisted on hydrovacing, to make the line visible to workers. After concerns were brought up, a Ground Zero operator struck and severed a phone line. Pacaud then took over operation of the excavator, but then struck and nicked the lining jacket of an unexposed area of the network gas lines, which were noted as not properly marked. Pacaud stopped all work in the area and ATCO visited the site again, offering Arbeau a reduced cost to move the line, to $5,940.
Pacaud held a toolbox meeting that afternoon instructing Ground Zero employees not to use powered equipment to excavate anywhere near any of the gas lines pending further instruction and any direction from Arbeau was to be cleared with Pacaud.
According to the agreed statement, after various issues arose, Ground Zero requested a management-level meeting where it was decided the company would clean up the site, but not do any further excavation.
After the meeting that morning, the Crown said Arbeau instructed a junior Ground Zero worker to compact an area in preparation for work being done the following week. Pacaud was not aware of this direction and the worker did not question the instructions. To carry out the work, the junior worker then created a “ramp” for the equipment needed to compact the area. In order to build the ramp, he dug into the ground with the excavator and struck the gas line.
The worker called Pacaud immediately, who notified ATCO, however nobody at the construction site called 911 to report the gas leak to Canmore Fire-Rescue.
Gas from the line flowed through the ground, pooling in the basement of an adjacent residential home until it found an ignition source and exploded.
That house was completely destroyed and more than a dozen others in the area were affected, with the blast registering a 1.1 on the Richter scale in Priddis and a $6.4 million property assessment loss noted on the street the following year.
APM defence counsel told the court that the company does not agree with the facts in the joint submission.
The judge accepted all submission and said he was happy and confident in the saving of court time and resources.
APM Construction and Arbeau maintain their non-guilty pleas and are set to go to trial in January 2020.
Agreed Statement of the Facts