Early on the morning of March 9, 2016, the heart of the Greenwood neighborhood exploded. The blast, which was caused by a natural gas leak from an abandoned Puget Sound Energy gas line, rendered three businesses—Neptune Coffee, Mr. Gyros, and Quik Stop—into a massive pile of rubble. In the subsequent months, a handful of businesses remained boarded up as owners bitterly fought over claims with their insurers. One resident, who lived above Gorditos Healthy Mexican Food, was made temporarily homeless while the building underwent repairs and renovations.
Now, nearly one year after the explosion, some of the neighborhood's small businesses are still struggling to recover. During a joint press conference at the Taproot Theatre on Wednesday, Seattle City Council member Mike O'Brien, whose district includes Greenwood, and five small business owners and workers called on Puget Sound Energy (PSE) to take financial responsibility for the explosion and its aftermath.
Last autumn, Washington's Utility and Transportation Commission (UTC) filed a complaint against PSE, alleging that the corporation was in violation of 17 pipeline safety regulations, which could cost up to $3.2 million, The Seattle Times reported. But since then, a handful of struggling small business owners have yet to see a dime from the utility company.
"Puget Sound Energy, and particularly their CEO Kimberly Harris, continue to seem to be unwilling to make restitution to these businesses or to really acknowledge their responsibility in the explosion," said Nikki Vissel, an actress and Taproot Theatre employee.
She continued: "The fact that they can walk away from their responsibility not just in our neighborhood, but throughout our city, is upsetting and terrifying. So we need to make them hold themselves accountable [and] make these businesses whole again."
The Taproot, a nonprofit located around the corner from the explosion, didn't suffer severe damages unlike some of the other buildings. Despite this, the theater doors, which no longer lock, have to be chained closed because their frames were bent in the blast.
Of the businesses represented at the press conference, Kouzina Restaurant, which opened on Greenwood Avenue in 2005, was most gravely affected by the explosion. After nearly a year of struggles with insurance and silence from PSE, owner Eleni Ponirakis fought tears as she told a room full of reporters that she would likely have to close her Greek bakery and restaurant on January 31 because her insurance wouldn't cover relocation funds.
"[My] biggest request to everybody is to call [PSE CEO] Kimberly Harris," she said. "Tell her to take care of the small businesses that they destroyed. It's not me only. It's other people like Neptune, Mr. Gyros, and Quik Stop. People still suffer to this day because of it."
After the press conference, Ponirakis led several reporters on a tour through her bakery, which stands just two doors down from the site of the explosion. In the kitchen preparation area at the back of the quaint store, the ceiling was beginning to collapse. She pointed to a corner of the room where a portion of it hung open like a wound. Ponirakis explained that rain leaks through it and caused mold to form on the walls, making it unsafe. Since her insurance won't pay for her to relocate her bakery, Ponirakis said she'd have to close up shop.
PSE vice president of customer operations and communications Andy Wappler was conveniently available for comment around the corner from the press conference. Although PSE was notified about the press conference, Wappler said he chose not to speak because they "didn't think it appropriate" to be there because the conference was for the business owners.
Wappler also told The Stranger that PSE received 10 claims from businesses, three of which had been resolved. Four were currently in the resolution process with their insurance companies and the corporation was working with another three businesses to get their documentation in order. Due to client confidentiality, Wappler could not reveal the names of the companies who had reached out to PSE.
"Anyone who does have a need or who has a claim, we want to hear from them—and quickly," he said. "Unfortunately, the amount of time [that this is taking] is not uncommon for something like this."
Council member O'Brien sees the gas corporation's behavior differently. In a follow up phone call with The Stranger, O'Brien called the PSE officials' lack of contact with local business owners "appalling" as they wait for the state UTC to review the complaint against them.
However, he said, even if UTC's three commissioners do find PSE in violation of pipeline-safety regulations, the funds from their $3.2 million fine would likely go into the state's general fund, not back to the business owners affected by the explosion.
"What is clear to me is that the system is designed to insure that the billion-dollar gas company has all their due process and legal rights," he said. "Meanwhile, these small businesses have no recourse at all. A lot of them don't have the capacity to wait out two years while this is resolved."
"I saw Andy Wappler on KOMO last night, saying something along the lines of, 'Don't worry, we'll make this right,'" said O'Brien. "But when? [PSE], you should be ashamed of yourselves. Talk with these people for crying out loud!"
The Seattle Times reports that O'Brien is committed to working with "state officials to create an oversight process for ensuring that decommissioned gas lines have been properly closed."
State regulators don’t require utilities to submit records relating to abandoned gas lines, like the one that caused the Greenwood explosion, officials told The Seattle Times in September.
As part of its investigation, UTC officials recommended that the state require PSE to identify and correct any other improperly abandoned pipelines that may exist in the company’s system.
In addition to this oversight process, O'Brien told The Stranger that he is working with state legislators (including Reps. Gael Tarleton, Reuven Carlyle, and Noel Frame) to better prepare for potential disasters. He did not go into detail about possible solutions.