Last fall, the city of Ruston alerted state and federal regulators when it discovered the Point Ruston developers were installing a propane gas pipeline without a permit.
Regulators got involved, and Point Ruston LLC then said it had abandoned the plan for a propane system on the Ruston side of the $1.2 billion retail-residential project on a Superfund site straddling the Ruston-Tacoma city boundary.
But the episode got the state’s attention. As inspectors looked into the original complaint, a Ruston official brought to their attention a propane tank sitting on the Tacoma side of the development.
It turned out the developer was operating a propane system on that part of the project, a system that was larger than what was permitted and whose lines had not been inspected as required by the Fire Department since being installed in 2013. One of the owners and lead developer, Mike Cohen, said last week he believed his team followed all the rules.
Tacoma fire officials had issued a permit for one propane tank and a single line for limited commercial use in the Copperline Apartments in May 2013. It wasn’t until last fall that they learned that the tank was three times the size of what had been permitted, and it was feeding two lines — one of which had not been included on any plans submitted to the Fire Department, had never been inspected and was distributing gas to 43 condominiums.
Public records and interviews show city officials quickly took steps to determine the system did not present a danger and that the problem was only procedural. Tacoma Fire Department officials said in interviews last week they are confident the gas lines are safe, based on reports provided by certified engineers hired by the developer.
The missteps with propane permitting are the first indication that not everything has gone as smoothly on the Tacoma side of the project as the developer has said. Point Ruston representatives have complained that the city of Ruston has stymied progress on its side of the development and have pointed to construction activity on the Tacoma portion as proof that their building plans and practices pass muster.
The Tacoma work is now in compliance — because the city worked to retroactively certify its design, installation and testing.
Large construction projects often have missed signals, and Tacoma prides itself on being a facilitator, not a regulator, city building official David Johnson said.
“Point Ruston doesn’t want to get on the bad side of the city when it comes to safety, I can guarantee you that,” Johnson said. “They share our concern. Because they took an action out of sequence doesn’t mean it’s necessarily unsafe.”
Cohen said Thursday that while the process for installation could have been better, the system is safe, and the variation from process isn’t a big deal. He said the construction team asked for and received every permit they thought they needed for the propane system.
“When we put in that system, 100 percent of everyone had every reason to believe everything was done properly,” he said.
Officials from the state agency that regulates explosive utilities ordered the developer in February to either remove the system or replace it with one that meets state and federal regulations, which are more strict than city code. They have not yet set a deadline.
Cohen said he’s working with Puget Sound Energy on a way to get natural gas to the site soon, and that the state Utilities and Transportation Commission was working with him on the timing so that he didn’t have to rebuild the propane system only to remove it permanently soon after.
Plans called for natural gas
Tacoma’s first record of the Copperline propane system came in April 2013, when the developers told the fire department they wanted a permit for a temporary 1,500-gallon liquid propane tank.
Planning documents that govern the site envision natural gas, not propane. Any permanent propane system would require an amendment to the development’s environmental impact statement, which involves a detailed and public process.
The developers had not found a cost-effective way to bring natural gas to the site, city staff said, and they needed the tank so the apartments and condos could be occupied. The gas was needed to operate stoves in the condos, for example; and to heat water for the businesses in the mixed-use building.
On May 1 of that same year, the developers officially applied for a permit from the Fire Department for a 1,000-gallon liquid propane tank and a single line to the Copperline Apartments. On May 13, the Fire Department inspected the tank and approved it for holding fuel.
There’s no record the single line to the apartment building was ever inspected, Ryan Erickson, code official for the Fire Department, said last week. The fire official who handled the tank is now retired. Erickson said it’s likely that the official intended to inspect the line later, which isn’t uncommon. It’s not clear why that didn’t happen, he said.
Even if the inspector had returned, the line was already buried. Daily construction reports show the two gas lines were installed and covered about two months before the first word about propane made it to the city.
Those reports also show the installation company did pressure testing, a type of safety check, shortly after the February installation.
Sometime after the May 13 tank inspection, the 1,000-gallon tank was replaced by a 3,000-gallon tank, which is still on the site. The Fire Department didn’t know about the swap, which required a permit. A tank of that size wouldn’t have been allowed anyway, Erickson said — 2,000 gallons is the biggest allowed in that location.
In a statement Friday, AmeriGas said it relied on “assurances by the developer that all proper permitting for such tank was in place.” The company stopped delivering gas to refill the tank when it learned from city building and fire staff that no permit for a 3,000-gallon-capacity tank was in hand.
In an interview, Cohen said the tank was swapped by gas supplier AmeriGas, “unbeknownst to us.” Cohen’s son and business partner, Loren, said AmeriGas also should have known that the city wouldn’t allow a tank bigger than 2,000 gallons.
Fire Department inspection “overlooked”
Should city fire officials have discovered the larger tank and second line before late last year? That’s hard to say.
Tacoma building officials issued a final certificate of occupancy — essentially the city’s final stamp of approval that a building is safe to use — for the Copperline Apartment building’s 173 units and several commercial spaces in December 2013. It’s not clear whether that process could have revealed the extent of the propane system, Johnson said, since the city had a record of a permit allowing a tank and a pipe for the apartment building.
But nine months later, in September 2014, city officials issued a final certificate of occupancy for the first phase of condos, which was being fed by the unpermitted second line.
Johnson said the line “obviously was overlooked.” Certificates of occupancy contain checklists from multiple departments and references to permits and other documentation, but ultimately each inspector signs off only if he or she is comfortable that the building is safe.
“There are literally millions of pieces that go into a building. The checks and balances are intended to manage the chaos of construction, and at times things are missed,” he said. “Our goal is to make sure something is built safely, not just that it followed the process.”
“Really the message here is, at no time were we concerned about the safety,” he said Thursday.
The propane gas fuels items including three common-area fireplaces in the Copperline Apartment building, a hot-water boiler and a backup generator. In the condos, it fuels stoves, gas fireplaces and outside barbeque grills. Loren Cohen said in late January that all the appliances had the correct burners for propane.
Fire Department gives retroactive OK
Erickson, the Fire Department code official, first learned about the larger tank and second line during a meeting Nov. 21, requested by Point Ruston to discuss a propane distribution system for the entire site.
“They wanted to put a huge LPG (liquified petroleum gas or propane) system in. This big tank and all these lines all over the place,” Erickson said.
During the discussion, Erickson said, Mike Cohen said the existing tank had gone from 1,000-gallons to 3,000-gallons, and he wasn’t sure why. That was news to Tacoma.
Erickson said they started “getting into the details pretty rapidly” about the Copperline system. He asked Point Ruston for documents that day, he said, and exchanged several phone calls because that was quicker. Then, he went to the site and walked it the next day, just to see if anything seemed out of the ordinary.
The fire marshal did the same, Erickson said, but neither were concerned after that.
“We don’t take this lightly,” Erickson said. “We did, and still do, believe this is a safe system.”
Cohen last week characterized the line inspections by the Fire Department as optional.
“Our lines were in. Our tank was set. We had the inspection. That’s all there was to it,” he said. “In hindsight everyone said, oh, well, this is unusual, we wish we could have seen (the lines) before they were buried. We appreciate that and in hindsight we wish you all could have seen (them) too.”
Municipal inspectors come to a site when contractors notify them that work is ready to be checked.
Erickson said inspections of lines are a requirement under the International Fire Code, and that the developer was repeatedly informed. The Fire Department told Point Ruston that the permit and inspection for the lines are free, because propane pipelines are “rarely, if ever, installed in Tacoma’s urbanized residential communities.”
Loren Cohen, the developer’s legal representative, also said the tank and the lines should have been covered by the building’s mechanical permit, which was issued a year after the lines were installed and buried.
City staff said a mechanical permit does not eliminate the need for a fire permit and inspection.
State officials cite possible violations
Fire officials set a deadline of Jan. 30 for Point Ruston to bring the system into retroactive compliance. The developer was required to do several things. Most importantly, it had to provide a third-party report by independent engineers who certify the system’s design, installation and testing met all applicable standards.
On Dec. 19, the Utilities and Transportation Commission informed the developer of six possible violations and one area of concern related to the Copperline tank and pipes. The letter made the rounds of top city officials, including Mayor Marilyn Strickland.
The possible violations are related to missing paperwork or other documentation. The “area of concern” was an item about a common room fireplace in one of the condo buildings that “smelled of a carbon rich atmosphere after the log insert was used prior to our inspection.” The inspector wondered if the fireplace was set up for natural gas, but was being fed by propane — a situation that could lead to fire.
The developer told the UTC that staff confirmed that the fireplace’s propane conversion kit was working properly. There was never any fire danger, Point Ruston said.
This item — which used planning-document terminology to refer to the building as “2B” — caught Strickland’s attention. In the evening of Dec. 23, she clipped it and sent it to Peter Huffman, head of the city’s planning services. The next morning, Christmas Eve, Huffman forwarded the clip to Johnson and Erickson.
“I’m assuming we have inspected the 2B building regarding the use of propane?” he wrote. “I find the below very disturbing.”
A flurry of emails ensued over the holidays, as city planning staff worked to figure out what they knew about the gas lines. At that point, Erickson, the Fire Department official, had already been working with the developer for about a month on the issue.
Fire Department limits propane storage
On Jan. 27, three days before the compliance deadline, Point Ruston submitted a packet of material intended to fulfill the Fire Department’s requirement to certify the propane system’s design, installation and testing.
In an email accompanying the packet, Mike Cohen told fire and planning officials that time was of the essence. He was awaiting a temporary occupancy permit for the second phase of the Copperline condos.
The packet, while extensive, did not meet the city’s requirements, records show. Three days later, on Jan. 30, Point Ruston sent a new certification letter that met the standard.
As part of bringing the system into compliance, the Fire Department is allowing the developer to burn the gas level down to 1,000 gallons and then has required them not to exceed that. There is a notice posted on the tank so it won’t be overfilled, Erickson said, and the city will be conducting spot inspections.
Cohen underlined that he had no intention to deceive the city of Tacoma.
“Any time you give something super scrutiny, you can say it could have been done differently or not,” he said. “The path of least resistance is always get a permit. Do what the city asks you to do. Period.”
Construction projects are always messy, and Point Ruston is exponentially more complicated, Johnson and Erickson said.