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States taking closer look at gas utilities after Mass. explosions

After Columbia Gas of Massachusetts' system overpressurization that caused a series of fires and explosions, regulators and consumer advocates in states where other NiSource Inc. subsidiaries operate are asking whether a similar incident could happen elsewhere.

The Maryland Public Service Commission's engineering division prepared an information request in light of the explosions for all Maryland gas distribution companies, including NiSource subsidiary Columbia Gas of Maryland Inc.

The letter asks for additional information about whether and how the companies' pipeline risk ranking systems, integrity management programs and pipeline replacement plans take into account overpressurization. The engineering division asked the utilities to address whether they consider the risk of low-pressure parts of the system becoming overpressurized, especially when figuring out what sections of the system to replace first. The Maryland PSC, which said it sent these letters out on Oct. 3, also asked what steps the companies have taken in response to the incident in Massachusetts.

SNL Image

Federal investigators found that the series of explosions and fires near Boston was caused by an overpressure on the pipelines, and they are working to understand why a pressure regulator sent increased flow the evening of the disaster.

Source: Associated Press

Federal investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board have said that there were both aging cast iron pipe and brand new plastic pipe on the Columbia Gas of Massachusetts system in the vicinity of the overpressurization. The utility, which is formally known as Bay State Gas Co., is replacing 45 miles of pipeline and 6,100 service lines in response to the Sept. 13 fires and explosions that affected Lawrence, Andover and North Andover, Mass. One person was killed, at least two dozen were injured, and more than 60 locations were damaged.

The Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission, too, has asked for more information from operators in its state — including NiSource subsidiary Northern Indiana Public Service Co., or NIPSCO — because of the Massachusetts explosions, commission spokeswoman Stephanie Hodgin said Oct. 3.

"The division requested that operators review their systems and procedures proactively and take any steps necessary to minimize the possibility of a similar incident happening in Indiana," Hodgin said, noting that the commission is in regular communication with all of the gas pipeline operators in the state, including NIPSCO, to discuss general pipeline management and as issues arise.

The IURC in late 2017 fined NIPSCO $900,000 for pipeline safety violations. The commission found that NIPSCO had failed to keep accurate maps and records of its underground facilities and to locate its pipelines in a timely way in advance of excavation work. In addition to the penalty, the company also had to take corrective steps to improve its performance.

In Virginia, the State Corporation Commission has not requested additional information from the companies it regulates, spokesman Ken Schrad said. However, NiSource subsidiary Columbia Gas of Virginia Inc. "has proactively kept SCC staff apprised of the Massachusetts event," Schrad said, noting that the company is "committed to complying with all applicable Virginia laws and regulations to ensure the integrity and safety of its Virginia gas distribution system."

An Ohio consumer watchdog has reached out to the state's utility regulator asking for more information on local NiSource subsidiary Columbia Gas of Ohio Inc.'s pipeline safety record.

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After the explosions, Massachusetts regulators launched a statewide assessment of gas utility systems.

Source: Associated Press

"The recent catastrophic events in Massachusetts made national news and vividly depict just how important pipeline safety is for natural gas customers," the Office of the Ohio Consumers' Counsel wrote in Sept. 28 comments to the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio. "The PUCO should require Columbia to file a supplement to its current annual pipeline safety report to inform the PUCO and parties whether the tragic events of the Massachusetts pipeline explosions on Columbia's system reveal any risk for Columbia's system and service to Ohio consumers."

The consumers' counsel office questioned whether the information Columbia Gas of Ohio has supplied in recent years has been sufficient, but the PUCO said Oct. 3 that since the commission in 2016 ordered the utility to file annual reports on certain pipeline safety practices and expenses, the commission had been satisfied with the company's reports. Still, the PUCO has been monitoring the developments in Massachusetts.

"The PUCO is keeping its eye on the ongoing investigation to see if there are any lessons learned and can be applied to Ohio," commission spokesman Matthew Schilling said Oct. 3.

In Kentucky and Pennsylvania, where other NiSource gas utility subsidiaries operate, no action has been taken specifically in response to the Massachusetts explosions and fires, the state utility commissions said.