Three companies connected with the Skookumchuck Wind Farm project located on the Thurston-Lewis county border have been collectively fined more than $500,000 by the Department of Labor and Industries in connection with a January trench collapse that killed a 24-year-old Chehalis man, according to a Thursday new release from the state agency.
An investigation by Labor and Industries found that the companies had operated with “numerous safety violations in connection with the incident.”
Renewable Energy Systems-Americas (RES-Americas) System 3 LLC was cited for eight violations totaling $360,874 and RES Americas Construction Inc. was cited for six violations totaling $184,800 related to the fatal death incident.
A third company, GEMS, a medical service contractor, was cited for one serious violation and must pay $4,200.
The finding stems from a Jan. 9 workplace death at the Skookumchuck Wind Farm project where a pair of trench collapses led to one worker being critically injured and another killed.
Records obtained by The Nisqually Valley News earlier this year shed new light on 24-year-old Jonathan Stringer’s efforts to save his coworker from a collapsed trench after the two were attempting to get a sleeve under a road culvert to install a cable for the turbines.
Stringer’s coworker survived the incident, but Stringer died after being buried by a second collapse.
A report by the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office, which was one the first responders on scene, noted there was no shoring on the trench to prevent the collapse at the remote worksite, located 15 miles up narrow logging roads in a spot with poor cellphone service.
“This incident is heartbreaking and frustrating,” said Anne Soiza, assistant director in charge of Labor and Industries’ Division of Occupational Safety and Health, in prepared remarks. “This fatality and the hospitalization of a worker were completely preventable. Trenching at this depth in the dead of winter after days of rain, in unstable soil with no trench box, was a recipe for disaster.”
Stringer’s family described him as a loving man who enjoyed baseball, fishing and helping others. He’s survived by his parents, as well as his daughter and fiance. A GoFundMe campaign opened online to benefit his family had received more than $25,000.
In the months since Stringer’s death, neither RES-Americas, the head construction company tasked with contracting out the job, nor Southern Power, which owns a majority stake in the company, have commented on the incident. There’s also been no comment from either company on the state’s investigation.
The 38-turbine Skookumchuck Wind Project, originally set to begin operating in December 2019, has undergone multiple setbacks and has yet to be substantially completed.
Though the company began erecting turbines starting April of this year, the project is not expected to go online until sometime toward the end of 2020.
Back in April, Southern Power officials told The Nisqually Valley News that the structure was deemed 65 percent complete and that 350 contracted workers were working at the laydown yard in Vail, south of Rainier, and at the project on Skookumchuck Ridge.
“These violations were flagrant and they nearly lead to a multiple-fatality incident. Sadly, they did cost one employee his life. For these reasons, the maximum penalty allowable under safety laws is being issued for the two most directly related willful violations,” Soiza said.
According to Labor and Industries, RES-America, the general contractor, hired RES System 3 to construct the wind farm.
“RES System 3 was most directly responsible for the work that day. The trapped worker hospitalized was a direct employee of RES System 3 and the man who died worked for Aerotek, a temporary labor agency contracted by RES System 3 to supply additional Labor,” the news release states.
Because RES System 3 was the prime contractor working on the project, it faced the largest number of fines.
“The willful violations are for not having cave-in protection, having no competent person trained on trench safety on site, and having no written safety program tailored to the project,” the news release states, adding that willful violations are the most serious.
Labor and Industries also found that RES System 3 acted indifferently to the site hazards and to rules and regulations regarding internal safety policies and procedures.
The nature of RES Amercas’ citations are for not ensuring subcontractors had and used cave-in protection and for not ensuring the subcontractor had a safety program tailored to the program.
RES Americas also faces two serious violations for improper use of a ladder and setup.
GEMS, a subcontractor providing onsite medical services, was fined for one serious violation for exposing two employees to hazards when they entered the unprotected trench.
According to Labor and Industries, the companies will have 15 business days from the time they receive the citation to either appeal or pay.