Charges filed in Nacimiento pipeline construction deaths

Two men drowned when workers digging a trench in Paso Robles broke open a water main in 2008

tstrickland@thetribunenews.comFebruary 17, 2011 

Flowers mark where two pipeline workers died in 2008 at the intersection of Niblick and South River roads.

DAVID MIDDLECAMP — dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com Buy Photo

Bob Gaines has phoned the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s office at least once a week since October 2008 to ask when the man he holds responsible for the Nacimiento pipeline death of his son and another man would be criminally charged.

On Thursday, that day came.

“I kept hounding them, and I guess it paid off,” the 51-year-old Bakersfield resident said.

After a lengthy investigation, the District Attorney’s Office filed felony charges against former Teichert Construction foreman Henry Duggins, 42, of Sacramento. Duggins faces a total of up to six years and four months in jail for all charges if convicted. State law allows felony charges to be filed up to three years after a crime.

Duggins faces two counts of involuntary manslaughter, a felony, for the deaths of Jacob Gaines, 24, of Bakersfield and Manuel Villagomez, 38, of Elk Grove.

The men drowned after water surged into a dark and dank section of pipeline, 30 inches in diameter, after an excavator hit a water line at the intersection of South River and Niblick roads in Paso Robles where they were working.

State investigators say Duggins ignored verbal warnings that a water line was in the same area where crews were digging a trench. Duggins later told officials that he may have looked at a site map upside down, not seeing the marking for the eight-inch water line, or that he may have relied on an unmarked map, according to a 2009 investigation report by the state Division of Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Duggins was summoned by letter Thursday to appear in San Luis Obispo Superior Court on March 9 for an arraignment.

The move comes one day after his former employer, Sacramento-based Teichert Construction, agreed to pay $3 million in penalties and adopt new safety procedures in a settlement with the county.

Criminal charges weren’t filed against Teichert, according to the District Attorney’s Office. Investigators chose to seek monetary and safety reforms against the corporation while filing criminal charges against the man in charge of the construction site the night of the incident.

Duggins could not be reached for comment Thursday. He also faces charges related to two felony Labor Code violations for each man’s death, as identified by the CAL/OSHA investigation.

Teichert was fined $140,000 in February 2009 for the same violations: not using measures to identify the water line and continuing to dig; and not removing employees from the dangerous area.

As of Thursday, Teichert was still appealing the fines.

State safety investigators found that although Duggins was told there was a water line within the excavation area, he ordered his workers to continue digging.

Within minutes of the verbal warning, a water line was hit and water burst into the trench and pipeline, overwhelming the victims.

State investigators found that the water line needed to be re-marked, but nobody requested before the digging that it be done, according to the report.

Teichert settled “several months ago” out of court with the families of the victims, awarding undisclosed sums of money, company Vice President Steve Mitchell said.

A third man in the incident, who escaped the trench before it filled with water, has filed a lawsuit against Pasadena-based Jacobs Engineering, the project manager. As of Thursday, the case brought by Jason Limon was still open.

The deaths of Gaines and Villagomez were two of three fatalities during construction of the Nacimiento Water Project, a pipeline designed to bring millions of gallons of drinking water to the county.

Timothy Nelson, 29, of Ojai was run over by a dump truck at the Camp Roberts segment of the pipeline in August 2009.

That case is still in litigation to determine whether adequate safeguards were in place before the incident, an OSHA spokesperson said. A hearing has not been scheduled yet.

In November, Bob Gaines visited the Paso Robles intersection where his son and Villagomez died. The trench has long been paved over, and a memorial with a flowered cross and solar-powered lights remains at the corner.

Teichert and county officials are still working on the logistics of building a permanent memorial plaque at the intersection of Niblick and South River roads.

Years of asking when justice may be served brings Bob Gaines some closure, he said, but, perhaps, not enough.

“It will help some,” he said. “But I don’t think you’ll ever heal from something like that.”

Julia Hickey contributed to this report.

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