AP NEWS

Michigan regulators order steps following utility plant fire

July 2, 2019

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Michigan regulators on Tuesday ordered a major utility to take steps to safeguard the reliability of natural gas service after a compressor station fire led to people being urged to conserve heat to keep gas flowing at a time of record demand during January’s polar vortex.

The Public Service Commission told Consumers Energy — which supplies half of the state’s 3.3 million natural gas customers — to study the method used to vent, or “blow down,” gas from a plant when a problem is detected. The company has said a plant at its Ray facility in Macomb County released a cloud of natural gas into the air during an emergency shutdown Jan. 30, but high winds both helped make the gas flammable and pushed it to an ignition source at a separate unit nearby.

Regulators also said Consumers Energy must evaluate its emergency management system and recommend improvements, as well as file reports on repairs to the facility and its capacity for the coming fall and winter seasons. It also must detail costs for the incident — estimated to surpass $25 million — the next time it seeks a rate increase.

Before the fire, nearly two-thirds of the Jackson-based utility’s natural gas could be distributed from the facility during peak periods. The blaze forced the company to restrict service to industrial customers and ask residents to set their thermostats at 65 degrees or lower amid frigid weather.

“This accident was uncharacteristically unpredictable, and the events of the ensuing 30 hours after the fire were unscripted and unrehearsed,” commissioner Norm Saari said. “Corrective actions were undertaken in a cooperative manner, with the foremost obligation to manage the uncertainty created by weather and customer reaction.”

He said the agency is still analyzing what happened and is committed to creating a “learning document” to focus on improved natural gas safety. Staff will file their analysis of the root cause of the blaze by Jan. 31, about a year after the commission opened its investigation .

In May, they disputed the utility’s contention that the Ray facility complied with regulations, noting that gas must be discharged “from the blowdown piping at a location where the gas will not create a hazard.” They also faulted the company for not adequately communicating with other utilities about the seriousness of the situation.

Consumers Energy spokeswoman Katie Carey said the utility is reviewing the order, modifying the Ray station before the fall heating season and working with the commission.

The order came a day after the agency issued a report to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, concluding that Michigan’s energy supply and delivery systems are adequate but in need of improvements. Whitmer had asked for the assessment in the wake of the frigid temperatures and the disruption in availability of natural gas Jan. 30-31.

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