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Aging gas lines under scrutiny

October 6, 2018

A 2017 Sierra Club study found that the labyrinth of natural gas pipelines underneath Hartford leak enough to power 214 households a year.

Yankee Gas Services — the gas provider for Danbury, Stamford, Norwalk and other Fairfield County towns — has identified 530 miles of leak prone pipelines in need of repair or replacement, testimony before state regulators shows.

Sudden underground gas explosions in Massachusetts last month rocked neighborhoods in Lawrence and surrounding communities, killing one resident, injuring dozens of others and leaving 8,600 customers without power.

Against that backdrop, a pair of state lawmakers is demanding a comprehensive accounting of the state’s oversight of Connecticut’s more than 8,100 miles of natural gas pipelines.

“I’ve sounded the alarm that we should inspect the old lines,” said state Rep. Chris Rosario, D-Bridgeport.

“The mayor of Lawrence is a friend and I got a close hand look at what happened,” Rosario said. “It’s going to take a long time for those families to recover. Many still don’t have power. Can you imagine if that happened in Bridgeport?”

Rosario and state Rep. Matt Lesser, D-Middletown, said the Massachusetts explosions — a sudden pressure spike may have been the cause — and growing concern over Connecticut’s aging pipelines prompted a request for review by the state Public Utilities Regulatory Authority.

The lawmakers want to know how many pipelines are leaking in Connecticut; the replacement plan; the role of state pipeline inspectors; safety compliance records; emergency procedures; and a overall summary of how PURA guards public safety.

State officials said there is little need for worry and stressed that Connecticut is ahead of Massachusetts in replacing and improving aging gas pipelines and their systems.

“PURA has one of the most robust leak detection programs in the nation that carefully monitors and enforces gas pipeline safety regulations and programs in Connecticut,” said Chris Collibee, a PURA spokesman.

Miles of pipe

Connecticut’s system of underground gas pipelines has been around for decades, hidden out of sight under tons of dirt, grass and asphalt. But concern over underground pipes is surfacing locally and nationally.

A recent USA Today report found that at least 85,000 miles of aging cast-iron and bare-steel gas pipes are still operating in U.S. communities, despite decades of warnings from the National Transportation Safety Board and other safety officials that they’re prone to failure and need replacing.

The best replacement option is plastic pipes that fail at far slower rates than iron and steel pipes.

In 2017, 42.5 percent, or 3,451 miles, of the state’s main lines and service lines were made of steel and 15.5 percent, or 1,260 miles, were made of iron, according to the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which has mandated a replacement program for the states.

The remaining gas pipeline — 3,451 miles or 42.5 percent — are made of plastic, PHMSA statistics show.

Collibee said the state’s Gas Pipeline Safety Unit performs about 450 field inspections annually and reviews the design, operations and maintenance of the pipeline infrastructure to ensure compliance with safety standards.

“Gas utility companies are required to report all leaks to PURA, which then takes action to address those leaks,” Collibee said.

“Connecticut is actually in far better shape than our neighbors to the north,” Collibee said.

“While I cannot speak for Massachusetts, Connecticut has been very aggressive in the replacement of leak prone infrastructure for many years, and we will continue to do so,” Collibee said.

At of the end of 2017, leak prone main pipelines made from iron, steel or copper accounted for nearly 18 percent of the state’s total main line miles, while nearly 13 percent of service lines were made of iron, copper or steel, Collibee said.

Federal statistics show that gas line leaks in Connecticut have been decreasing, from about 25 leaks per 1,000 miles of pipe in 2010 to about 10 leaks per 1,000 miles in 2017.

Colibee did not provide the number of miles of leak prone pipelines underneath the state, which would include both main transmission lines and service lines.

Paying for replacement

During recent testimony before PURA over a pending rate hike request, Thomas Hart, director of gas engineering for Eversource and Yankee Gas, said leaking pipes have decreased by 52 percent since 2012.

But Hart told regulators the “overall main and service leak rates for Yankee are high within the U.S,” and noted those leak rates present “substantial additional risk to Yankee’s customers.”

Hart told PURA those pipes should be replaced as quickly as possible and identified 530 miles of leak prone main lines.

The purpose of Hart’s testimony was to convince PURA to allocate a portion of the company’s proposed rate hike to replacing leak prone gas lines. Yankee G\as is proposing to spend $30 million over the next three years on pipeline replacement and $221 million on reliability.

Michael West, a spokesman for the Southern Connecticut Gas and Connecticut Natural Gas companies, said “sufficient systems” are in place to ensure public safety.

“Safety is our number one priority for our customers and our employees,” West said.

West said Connecticut Natural Gas will spend about $21 million a year replacing gas pipelines and making other improvements and Southern Connecticut Gas plans to spend $86 million by 2020.

West also declined to say how many miles of leak prone pipelines are within the company’s service territory.

‘Deeply concerning’

Lesser and Rosario said they don’t know the extent of the leak problem in Connecticut, and added that’s a troubling admission.

“In wake of the Lawrence disaster, it’s appropriate to have a review to make sure what happened in Lawrence does not happen here,” Lesser said.

“The state does inspections; I’m reviewing how that works,” Lesser added. “They have state workers who do the main transmission lines.”

Lesser noted the utility companies are responsible for inspecting service lines that run from the main lines to homes and businesses.

Rosario said the legislature may want to look at PURA’s oversight, inspection and safety procedures.

“We want to make sure that the way DOT inspects bridges is something similar to what’s done with our pipelines,” Rosario said. “Massachusetts found that 70 percent are faulty.”

bcummings@ctpost.com

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