Feds Hit Maine Natural Gas Pipeline Operators With Serious Safety ViolationsSep 20th, 2011 | By fjgallagher | Category: Lead Articles, Regulation
Even as Maine Gov. Paul LePage says he’s looking to expand the use of natural gas in the state, one of Maine’s largest natural gas transmission pipeline operators has been cited for a potentially serious pipeline safety violation by a federal regulatory agency.
Specifically, the federal Pipeline Hazards and Materials Safety Administration cited the Portland Natural Gas Transmission System with a probable violation of safety regulations that relate to patrolling a 144-mile pipeline that runs between Pittsburg, NH, and Westbrook, ME, to inspect for leaks.
According to an Aug. 22 letter from the PHMSA to the Portland Natural Gas Transmission System, the company not only failed to perform weekly aerial inspections and ground patrols of the 144-mile, 24-inch, high-pressure natural gas pipeline as required by federal law, the company has apparently not performed an aerial inspection of the line since July 2007 due to a lack of qualified pilots, and reduced ground patrol inspections from quarterly, as required by federal law, to annual events.
From the Aug. 22 PHMSA letter to the Portland Natural Gas Transmission System:
A PHMSA representative reviewed records in PNGTS’s office in Windham, Maine. According to the PNGTS’s Aerial Patrol Reports, aerial patrols were not consistently conducted at a weekly interval since the third quarter of 2004. The records contained annotations indicating that PNGTS cancelled scheduled patrols due to inclement weather conditions. Also, the record had no annotations that demonstrated an aerial patrol was “completed” or cancelled on several scheduled dates.1 Additionally, PNGTS could not provide any records that showed an aerial patrol was rescheduled and completed after cancellation.
Albeit, PNGTS was unable to find qualified contractors that met TransCanada’s requirements; therefore, PNGTS only scheduled and conducted biweekly aerial patrols since 2008. PNGTS personnel stated that Maine Aviation conducted aerial patrols with fixed-wing aircraft along with helicopter patrols conducted by TransCanada Aviation since 2006. PNGTS personnel further stated that Maine Aviation stopped providing aerial patrol services to PNGTS in July 2007 because it lacked qualified pilots for aerial patrol.
A PHMSA representative also reviewed PNGTS’s Ground Patrol Reports that indicated PNGTS conducted annual rather than quarterly ground road crossing patrol from 2005 to 2007. Furthermore, the quarterly ground road crossing patrol must include leak surveys on all Class 3 locations. However, PNGTS did not conduct leak surveys on a quarterly basis as required
The PHMSA representative reportedly conducted the inspection in connection with a request from the Portland Natural Gas Transmission System for a waiver from federal pipeline safety regulations pertaining to maximum operating pressure.
According to the company’s website, the Portland Natural Gas Transmission System is a, “a high-capacity, high-pressure interstate natural gas pipeline which began serving New England’s growing energy needs on March 10, 1999.”
The Portland Natural Gas Transmission System primarily provides natural gas to natural gas utilities, paper mills and power plants in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts. Its customers include Northern Utilities, Bay State Gas Companies and Wausau Paper, among others. It is subsidiary company jointly owned by a pair of Canadian companies, TransCanada Pipelines and Gaz Metro.
Natural gas pipeline safety has become an issue of growing controversy in recent months because of a string of high-profile natural gas explosions, including one in San Bruno, CA, that killed eight people and destroyed an entire neighborhood in Sept. 2010.
Aging cast-iron natural gas pipelines — many of which date back to the 1940′s and before — are particularly susceptible to leaks brought about by corrosion, environmental damage and other natural causes. Maine’s own natural gas infrastructure is aging and in need of significant upgrade.
Documents obtained from the Maine Public Utilities Commission indicate that Unitil,the company that supplies natural gas to the Portland, Maine, retail market operates 62.49 miles of cast-iron natural gas mains beneath streets and byways throughout southern Maine, with a significant amount of those lines running beneath Portland streets.
Nevertheless, LePage said his administration “is gearing up” to make a big push to expand the natural gas market in Maine.
“In January, energy is going to be a big push,” LePage said, “I want to talk with the legislature about natural gas infrastructure. We are gearing up now to talk with all of the natural gas companies, we want them to come in and talk to us about what we can do to get them to invest in the state of Maine.”
Officials at Portland Natural Transmission System and TransCanada Pipeline failed to return messages left by NaturalGasWatch.org.
See a complete map of the Portland Natural Gas Transmission System pipeline network here: PNGTS_map