Summit faces $150,000 fine for drilling natural gas pipes through Maine sewer lines

Posted Oct. 14, 2014, at 3:27 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — State regulators want Summit Natural Gas of Maine to pay a $150,000 fine after discovering the company damaged sewer lines in 25 places during horizontal drilling installations in Augusta, Gardiner, Yarmouth and Cumberland.

The discovery of problems with the company’s natural gas pipeline installations using trenchless, horizontal drilling technology prompted new safety reviews in June. Since then, the Maine Public Utilities Commission has required the company to verify it did not damage sewer lines by using a remote camera before the gas could start flowing.

“We’re going on a pipeline-by-pipeline basis,” said Derek Davidson, who oversees the PUC’s gas safety division.

After gathering information on the damage and finding 26 other instances in which natural gas lines were less than 12 inches from sewer or drain facilities, the PUC issued the penalty recommendation Friday, also recommending that Summit go back and dig up other utility lines around pipelines it installed with horizontal drilling before June.

Of the 25 documented cases of sewer line damage, the report filed Friday by the PUC’s gas safety manager indicated the most severe was in Gardiner, where a natural gas pipeline was drilled through a sewer line. Noticing the blockage, the homeowner at 66 School St. called a plumber, who attempted to clear the blockage with a mechanical snake that chipped away at half of the thickness of the inactive natural gas pipeline.

“Had the gas main been active and there had been more aggressive attempts to clear the sewer lateral, the results may have been disastrous,” the report states.

Davidson said the greatest danger in that situation is that gas would travel up the sewer line into the basement of a home, where it could then be ignited by a furnace or other spark.

The PUC inspection found Summit’s drilling damaged 13 sewer laterals in Augusta, eight in Gardiner, three in Yarmouth and one in Cumberland.

The company earlier this year announced plans to invest about $110 million this year to expand natural gas service from the 68-mile backbone pipeline it built from Pittston to Madison. It planned to build out 85 miles of pipeline in the Kennebec Valley and about 66 miles of pipelines in Cumberland, Falmouth and Yarmouth.

Davidson said he did not have an estimate for what amount of the pipelines was installed with horizontal drilling, the method that led to damaged sewer lines.

The recommendation that the company go back and expose other underground utilities around pipelines installed last summer is intended to corral any similar damage from earlier installations, according to Davidson.

“We don’t believe they were installed improperly and in light of what’s happening now we want them to go back and check those that are installed,” Davidson said. “There’s a possibility that they could find additional damages when they do that.”

An official with Summit did not return a message left Monday seeking comment.

Harry Lanphear, spokesman for the PUC, said the company has been responsive to requirements from the regulators.

“They’ve taken this violation very seriously,” Lanphear said. “They’re being responsive and doing the right thing at this point. I certainly don’t want to have possible consumers be afraid. They clearly had some issues and we identified them and they’re taking the right steps to correct these issues.”

The company can either accept the details and recommendation of the PUC staff or dispute it by requesting an informal conference with regulators. If there’s a disagreement through that process, it would go to commissioners for a decision.

In addition to a $150,000 fine and reviewing pipelines previously installed using horizontal drilling, the PUC staff has recommended that the company start a training and qualification program for its employees in using trenchless installation methods and that the company start a public awareness campaign to inform residents, building owners, plumbing contractors and others that might be involved in clearing obstructed sewer lines.

“The campaign’s message shall include the dangers associated with the cross boring of gas facilities through existing sewer facilities,” the report stated.

PUC staff said the problem was first detected in Cumberland when an inspector noticed that other underground utilities were not exposed during horizontal drilling installations in early June. According to the report, a company representative assured the inspector that other underground utilities were being located in a manner approved by town officials, but a June 17 inspection found damage to a water service line at 20 Meadow Lane in Cumberland.

On June 24, regulators issued the request for Summit to document “that all sewer and electrical facilities crossed were not impacted by the gas facility installation.”

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