Philadelphia Gas Works to ‘aggressively’ replace old gas lines

Oct 25th, 2015 | By admin | Category: Natural Gas Industry Information

NatGas Consulting

By Mike Wereschagin

Thursday, Oct. 22, 2015, 2:36 p.m.

Crews remove debris from the site of a gas main explosion in Philadelphia on Jan. 19, 2011, that killed a Philadelphia Gas Works employee, injured five others and forced dozens of residents to evacuate their homes. The explosion sent a 50-foot fireball into the sky.

The owner of the most leak-prone natural gas distribution system in the state has agreed to “aggressively” accelerate the replacement of its most dangerous pipes, according to a 572-page Public Utility Commission audit released Thursday.

Philadelphia Gas Works, the largest municipally owned gas company in the country, will farm out some of the excavation work so the utility’s workers can spend more time fixing leaks, according to the audit. In all, auditors made 76 recommendations that would save the utility an estimated $8.3 million to $9.4 million a year, the report stated.

The utility plans to increase spending on replacement of high-risk pipe to $50 million next year, up from $17 million in 2012.

“I am confident that PGW understands the grave importance of this issue, and the commission will continue to monitor these efforts,” PUC Commissioner Robert Powelson said.

Philadelphia Gas Works operates about half of all cast-iron pipes in the state, with about 1,500 miles of the leak-prone lines. That’s nearly half the total miles of gas mains owned by the utility. Accelerating its replacement will shave about 30 years off its previous schedule, but that still means Philadelphia will have to provide gas service with some corrosion-prone pipe for the next 60 years.

By comparison, Columbia Gas of Pennsylvania and Peoples Natural Gas Co. plan to replace theirs by 2029 and 2031, respectively, the Tribune-Review found in “The Invisible Threat,” an ongoing investigative series on the state of the country’s gas distribution systems to homes, businesses and other customers.

“PGW’s system, when compared to other similar utilities, has a much higher percentage composed of cast iron and a much lower percent composed of plastic,” the material most commonly used in new and replacement pipelines today, the audit said.

Only three utilities in the country have a higher percentage of cast iron mains, and none of them approaches Philadelphia Gas Works’ size. The largest of the three has a total of 61 miles of mains compared to Philadelphia’s 3,000.

The utility also has about 3,000 open leaks, which are known leaks that workers haven’t gotten around to fixing. Sometimes, utilities will allow leaks to continue because the gas involved is a small amount or is venting into open air and can’t reach an explosive concentration. But the auditors noted PGW has about twice as many of these leaks as the average utility of similar size.

“Having too many open leaks increases the chance of an incident,” the audit states.

A 19-year-old Philadelphia Gas Works employee died in an explosion in January 2011 while investigating a leak.

The utility told auditors it’s looking into a new software system to track leaks and schedule repairs.

Philadelphia Gas Works fully accepted 62 of the auditors’ recommendations, partially accepted 13 and rejected one. The lone recommendation the utility rejected dealt with streamlining the utility’s management, which is controlled by the Philadelphia Gas Commission and the nonprofit Philadelphia Facilities Management Corp., both of which are run by political appointees and elected officials.

Auditors said the nonprofit and gas commission have “overlapping and somewhat unclear roles and responsibilities.” Philadelphia Gas Works could save as much as $500,000 a year by combining the two.

The utility said it couldn’t accept the recommendation because the two organizations were established by laws it has to obey.

“I understand that PGW is not in a position to accept this recommendation,” Powelson said. “However, this is an important area that needs action, and I will continue to urge Philadelphia’s mayor and City Council to address the inefficiencies and confusion of having two governing boards for PGW.”

Previous efforts to reform the utility’s governing structure failed, most recently when some on City Council balked at a proposal by a private Connecticut-based firm, UIL Holdings, to buy the utility for nearly $2 billion.

Mayor Michael Nutter, who supported the sale but is leaving office in January, hadn’t seen the report Thursday night, spokesman Mark McDonald said.

“He appreciates the PUC’s review of operations at PGW, and we will take a careful look at what is being recommended,” McDonald said.

Mike Wereschagin is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7900 or

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