One month following the conclusion of a heavily publicized civil trial concerning a fatal boat explosion, the Lincoln County Fire Marshal’s Office is working to better enforce state fire and building codes for marine and land-based fueling systems based on what fire officials say is a new interpretation of an already existing law.
Fire Marshal Mike Futrell said Thursday that his office has always been aware that the North Carolina Department of Insurance and Office of State Fire Marshal’s Office required all gas stations, both on land and water, to obtain a construction permit for any alteration, installation, repair and/or replacement of any fuel-dispensing station and its components.
However, Futrell said the state changed its interpretation of the law during last month’s trial, which stemmed from a 2008 incident at Hobbs Westport Marina in Denver where 19-year-old Nathan Coppick died after the gas nozzles he was using to refuel a yacht leaked into the water and sparked a blast.
During the trial, officials with both Petroleum Equipment and Services, Inc., the marina’s nozzle supply and installation company, and Westport officials claimed they were unaware of the state fire and building codes outlawing the automatic closing nozzles with hold-open latches that the marina had on their floating dock’s fueling stations at the time of the explosion.
State law requires such nozzles operate without hold-open latches and that all work done to fuel-dispensing stations, including the removal of nozzles, be approved by the county Fire Marshal’s Office through the issuance of construction permits.
Futrell said he didn’t learn until Richard Strickland, OSFM’s chief fire code consultant, testified during the trial that the state also interpreted the simple changing of a gas nozzle as a permit-required alteration.
In the past, fire officials deemed nozzle work as routine maintenance and defined as an alteration any work involving a new installation or “upfit,” Futrell said.
Because the state’s interpretation of repair work and general maintenance remains under question, Lincoln County fire officials have notified all county gas stations that permits must be obtained before business employees do any type of work to their fuel-dispensing stations.
“Our office just does not feel that we have a clear-cut interpretation,” Futrell said. “There’s such a gray area here; we just can’t take a chance.”
The Lincoln County Fire Marshal’s Office has also submitted to necessary businesses an outline of state policy and what the permit application process requires.
However, Futrell’s office isn’t the only one confused over the issue.
“Everyone I’ve talked to across the state hasn’t heard such an interpretation either,” he said.
Currently, Lincoln County is the only North Carolina county enforcing the specific state law, Futrell revealed, and that even state fire officials are doing little if anything to guarantee all fueling systems are in compliance.
“I wonder why over half the marinas in the state are still using illegal nozzles and may not meet other parts of the code as well,” he said. “Does each marina have to have an accident where someone gets hurt or killed before they are brought up to code?”
In a recent email, an OSFM employee even told Futrell that unless state officials are specifically asked about the state law, they aren’t going to issue any reminders.
Futrell said state officials also wouldn’t specify for him what constitutes general maintenance work.
Instead, they told him the topic is “common sense” and that each individual fire marshal office across the state should determine what work they issue permits for in their specific counties, completely contradicting the concept of a state-wide law, Futrell said.
County fire officials are also concerned about the amount of time and energy it’ll take to issue permits for each maintenance and repair job done to the 1,100 fueling systems throughout the area.
Futrell noted that any business that has a problem with the law can appeal it and pursue a better interpretation from the state.
In fact, he said he encourages such a move so “something (with the law) will change.”
Currently, permits are free. Futrell said his office is waiting to see if Raleigh will change its mind about the issue and how many permit requests the county will receive in the next few months before a possible permit charge is put in place.
Anyone with questions about the law or permit requirements is asked to contact the Lincoln County Fire Marshal’s Office at (704) 736-8516.
“We want the agencies that come to Lincoln County to know that you must pull a permit,” Futrell said, “and if you have any doubt, call us and we will tell if the work you’re doing falls into a permitable type case.”