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Family gets $7.5m in propane settlement

The family of William Nichols has settled with EnergyUSA and Smolinsky Plumbing and Heating for $7.5 million, less than two years after Nichols’s death in the 2010 propane explosion in Norfolk.

The family and two other individuals who survived the blast with permanent injuries settled last week for a total of $22.5 million, said Marc Breakstone, the Nichols family’s lawyer. And the state fire marshal’s office proposed new propane regulations as a result of dual investigations in the accident.

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“It’s not a win-win,” said Mark Nichols, William Nichols’s brother. “It’s still a win-lose, but if something good can come out of my brother’s death, like making it safer for others, then that’s something on the positive side.”

The investigation into the cause of the explosion showed that the propane tank had “virtually no odorant,” which meant the workers would have had no warning of danger before the explosion, Fire Marshal Stephen Coan said.

“This has happened with alarming regularity around the country,” Breakstone said of accidental propane explosions. “This case has caused a groundswell of concern by fire officials and regulatory agencies to prevent and increase public awareness of unodorized propane.”

The pending regulations would require propane companies to regularly test gases three different ways to ensure that there are adequate levels of ethyl mercaptan, the odorant, at every stage of the process. Under the regulations, railroad cars would also have to pass the test before they could be unloaded in Massachusetts, and new tanks in the ground must be filled to 80 percent capacity within 48 hours, said Timothee Rodrique, the director of the division of fire safety within the state’s Executive Office of Public Safety and Security.

“This will make it much safer for millions of grill owners in Massachusetts and the firefighters,” Coan said. “So they will definitely smell propane when there is a leak.”

Ethyl mercaptan gives off a skunk smell, Rodrique said. Without it, propane can seep for hours without detection, leading to high explosion risks. Ethyl mercaptan also has a tendency to dissipate, a phenomenon called “odor fade” — a concern Coan discussed with federal authorities as a result of this investigation.

“Anytime there is a leak, the odorant is the key safety factor for both the consumer and the firefighter,” Coan said.

Nichols, 46, was working on the heating and air conditioning system in an unfinished duplex before the explosion at 12:30 p.m. He was trapped under the rubble an hour and 38 minutes before firefighters reached him. He died of his injuries at a hospital that night.

The findings of the initial investigation, namely the lack of significant odorant in the propane, sparked a second, wider investigation, Coan said. That inquiry ultimately led teams to a major regional propane facility in Westfield, where several railroad cars were found without odorant.

A settlement between the Westfield facility and Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office enacted the proposed regulations at the facility while the investigation was still underway. The statewide regulations have been approved by the Board of Fire Prevention and are awaiting approval for a public hearing, which could come as early as September, Rodrique said.

The regulations would go into effect as soon as they are filed with the State Register, which would be about a month after the public hearing, Rodrique said. Among the regulations is mandatory training for anyone handling propane — including gas grill owners, who would face about 30 minutes of instruction.

Matt Woolbright can be reached at matt.woolbright@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @reportermatt.
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