State regulators on Monday fined a Yakima Valley irrigation district $37,900, saying improper training led to the drownings of two of the company’s divers in an irrigation canal siphon in March.
The Department of Labor and Industries is still investigating the drownings of two other divers in the March 15 tragedy.
The Roza Irrigation District of Sunnyside was cited for a total of 10 serious violations of safety rules regulating commercial diving and confined-space entry.
Roza Irrigation District Manager Ron Van Gundy said the district has “a very active safety program,” adding, “unfortunately there were some mistakes. We’ve been doing this for quite a number of years very safely, and of course when that’s the case, you tend not to review everything.”
He said the district will appeal some of L&I;’s assertions of wrongdoing. It has 15 days to do so.
In issuing its citation, the agency said Roza failed to ensure that the dive team members “had the necessary experience or training for a permit-required confined space entry dive, and failed to make sure that a designated person with experience was in charge.”
L&I; found that Roza should have made sure the divers wore full-body harnesses with lifelines, and that all wore gear sufficient to protect them from near-freezing water. One diver was improperly clad, the investigators said.
The regulators also said there was insufficient pre-dive planning to take into account the need for sufficient air and appropriate diving equipment, as well as surface and underwater conditions and hazards.
In May, an independent investigation by the Pierce County sheriff’s office determined all four divers miscalculated the amount of air needed.
The state agency also said Roza failed to put into place proper safety procedures and failed to provide underwater communications gear, lights and other equipment.
The investigation and fine followed the drownings in a water-filled, underground portion of the Roza Canal near Zillah.
Killed were irrigation district divers John Eberle of Grandview and Marty Rhode of Zillah, and search-and-rescue divers Rusty Hauber of Yakima and Charlie “J.R.” Mestaz of Moxee.
L&I; is still looking into the deaths of Hauber and Mestaz.
The irrigation district hired Eberle and Rhode to dive into the 104-foot-deep, half-mile-long siphon to retrieve abandoned and submerged cars.
When the two divers failed to surface, the two rescue divers were dispatched to retrieve them. They, too, failed to return to the surface before their oxygen was depleted.
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