Local/State

Pa. panel issues new gas leak detection guidelines

Monday, December 26, 2011

Pennsylvania utility authorities have adopted new gas leak detection guidelines that would increase monitoring during the winter months, although they are not as strict as requirements the agency proposed last month.

The Public Utility Commission says the changes, customized for each utility and adopted last week, are aimed at improving pipeline safety and preventing explosions like the Feb. 9 blast that killed five people in Allentown. The explosion remains under investigation.

Commission spokeswoman Jennifer Kocher told The (Allentown) Morning Call that the company-specific "frost patrol" leak detection requirements will improve safety without imposing a financial burden on customers. Utilities objected to the cost of more stringent statewide leak detection and safety requirements included in a tentative order issued by the agency in November.

"We have a responsibility to balance the safety of customers with reasonable rates," Kocher said. "All of this would have been recovered from consumers."

Under the guidelines, UGI Utilities will be required to survey all cast-iron distribution lines every two weeks between Jan. 1 and March 31 and must do an annual survey of all unprotected metallic service lines as well as sending teams out on foot to do a "special business/urban area" leak survey.

UGI said in a statement that it is already doing more than required by federal pipeline safety regulations and had worked with the commission to develop stronger leak detection practices. Company spokesman Dan Adamo told the paper in an e-mail that the utility proposed increasing the frequency and duration of its existing winter survey procedures and the panel "accepted that proposal with refinements the company finds acceptable."

Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski, however, said he favored stronger and stricter regulations and dismissed the idea that UGI couldn't afford them.

"I would hope the gas companies would look past this insignificant cost when it comes to overall lives that would be saved," he said. "They had the highest dividend they posted in their 30 years of operation. This whole argument that it has to be passed on to the customer is ridiculous."

Leak patrols in cold weather are conducted because frozen ground can stress inflexible cast-iron pipes, increasing the chance of breaks. Adamo said the urban area survey to be done between Nov. 1 and March 31 would initially focus on how close mains are to buildings, wall-to-wall paving, the number and type of open and repaired leaks, what the mains are made of and whether they are protected by anti-corrosion measures.

UGI said the enhanced monitoring would cost an estimated $1 million a year across its three gas utilities. The company said the requirements in the original proposal would have cost $5.7 million a year, including the need to purchase 125 pieces of leak-detection equipment and 135 additional personnel.

UGI Utilities maintains 387 miles of cast iron and 395 miles of unprotected steel pipelines, according to the commission's frost patrol order, and with the two other utilities it operates in the commonwealth has a total of 527 miles of cast-iron distribution lines.

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Information from: The Morning Call, http://www.mcall.com

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