At 6:33 a.m. July 11, the NV Energy commerce substation at 1004 Main St. exploded. The blast threw debris into neighboring properties, broke windows and doors, and completely destroyed some of the closest buildings, including H K Plumbing to the north and The Attic vintage clothing store to the south. Since then, many local businesses have worked together to repair the damage, but NV Energy has only recently offered to help fix anything other than its own facility.
Following the blast, NV Energy started rebuilding its substation and investigating the cause of the explosion. But when local businesses asked for help cleaning up debris and repairing damaged buildings, they said NV Energy ignored their requests. Businesses up and down the block closed for repairs, which they had to pay for themselves. Sometimes the work was covered by insurance, sometimes not. Six months later, some businesses are back up and running, some are still under construction and a few have closed permanently or moved out of the area. But all of them had to do it on their own.
“They wouldn’t even clean up the debris on my property,” says Harry Sullard, owner of H K Plumbing. “After three weeks, I had to rent a backhoe myself and clean up the mess.”
Sullard says the blast demolished his building and damaged his vehicles, and the accompanying electromagnetic pulse fried his computers. Even more frustrating for him was not being able to get anyone at NV Energy to talk to him about it. “I called them, and they direct you to the claims department,” he says. “When I explained that I was part of the blast down here, they explained that they didn’t know anything about any blast down on Main Street, but that they’d be more than happy to take my name and phone number and someone would call me back.”
Sullard says the only response he received from NV Energy in six months of trying was when the utility requested access to his property so construction crews could rebuild the wall around the substation. If NV Energy wasn’t going to be a good neighbor, Sullard decided he wasn’t either.
“If I have to lay at the base of that wall with my grandchildren, that’s what I’ll do,” he says. “We’re doing things in sequence here. They damaged me. They fix me. Then we talk about their little problems.”
Sullard leases his property, so NV Energy called his landlord. “My landlord stood up and said, ‘He has a lease for the next five years, so you better deal with him.’”
Mayra Politis, owner of The Attic, had similar difficulties trying to deal with NV Energy. “They’re still charging me for service at the dead building,” Politis says. Her entire building needs to be rebuilt, she says, so she bought signs for local businesses to post in their windows saying “NV Energy blew up my building and they don’t care … shame on them!” After a few more months of no response, she started picketing on Main Street with some of her neighbors. She got no reaction from NV Energy.
Andrea Smith, NV Energy’s corporate communications director, says the company is looking into the blast. “We cannot say anything other than that the investigation [into what caused the blast] is ongoing,” she says during a meeting in her office. “We are in contact with the customers in that area. That’s all I can tell you.”
When pressed about business owners’ complaints, Smith threatens to have security escort me out of the building.
On Jan. 11, Politis and a group of her supporters picketed in front of the Sahara Avenue office of NV Energy and got a response. That afternoon, NV Energy issued a statement that even though an investigation had determined that they were “not responsible or liable for the incident,” they would “pay affected property owners’ reasonable, moderate and verifiable claims that are not otherwise covered by insurance.”
Jim Defrates, who works in NV Energy’s claims department, says the company is offering a one-time payment for documented physical damage. In exchange, Defrates says, business owners must sign a release “saying, this is my total claim here, X amount of dollars, and for this amount, I’m releasing NV Energy of any further responsibility.” Defrates doesn’t know why NV Energy waited six months to make the offer.
Ann McGinley, an attorney and torts professor at UNLV, says the company’s offer is fairly standard. “I think they issued the statement because they intend to preempt any lawsuits,” she says. “There’s nothing wrong with doing that. This is in NV Energy’s interest to settle these things and to settle them quickly and settle them cheaply.” She also cautioned local businesses to get professional advice before accepting any offer. “I would tell them to go to an attorney who specializes in plaintiff’s tort litigation, and particularly one who has some experience in valuation of businesses.”
The offer might provide could some businesses with exactly what they need, she says, but it might not be enough for others. “They’re offering the value of the property that was damaged, but there’s no offer for loss of income, loss of future business, even personal injury if there is any, or emotional distress.”
Politis says NV Energy’s offer is a step forward since now, at least, the company is talking to her. Sullard is less enthusiastic, saying he needed to talk to an attorney before giving his opinion of the company’s offer.