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Location of natural gas lines, whether leaking shrouded from public

| Wednesday, Sept. 24, 2014, 9:06 p.m.
Stephanie Strasburg | Trib Total Media
People's Natural Gas Co. fitter/operator Mark Palmire II, 26, of Bloomfield, works to install a plastic gas line in Squirrel Hill on Monday, Sept. 15, 2014. People's Natural Gas Co. is two years into an accelerated replacement program of their old cast iron and bare steel gas lines, digging up Pittsburgh streets and sidewalks to replace the older metal pipes with plastic ones before they rupture and cause leaks.
Stephanie Strasburg | Trib Total Media
People watch from a home window as People's Natural Gas Co. fitter/operators Mark Palmire II (left), 26, of Bloomfield, and Dan McAndrew (center), 42, of North Versailles work with work group leader Matt Trimbur (right), 36, of Bloomfield, to install a plastic gas line in Squirrel Hill on Monday, Sept. 15, 2014. Natural gas utilities are scrambling to get rid of their cast iron and bare steel gas lines Ñ some of which are more than 120 years old Ñ before they rupture and cause the kind of explosions that killed five in Allentown in 2011, eight in New York last year, and destroyed an entire neighborhood in San Bruno in 2010.
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 hidden, aging labyrinth that is the natural gas distribution network in Pennsylvania last year sprang more than 31,000 leaks — averaging one every 17 minutes, a Tribune-Review analysis of federal data found.

But the location of those pipelines — and whether they still leak — remains a secret, guarded by the state commission charged with regulating companies that own the lines. The secrecy prevents the public from finding out about leaks and the age and reliability of pipes carrying gas to homes, businesses and other customers.

“It's important to ... protect that information because of security interests and security concerns. You don't want everyone outside the utility knowing exactly where the pipelines are,” said state Public Utility Commissioner Gladys Brown, a former aide to state Senate Democrats on utility issues.

The PUC won a 2012 Commonwealth Court case against a Right-to-Know Law request for records of where and how gas companies responded to leaks and denied a similar request the Tribune-Review filed in March.

Some caution that such secrecy has dangers. When a cracked pipeline caused a fatal explosion in 2011 in Allentown in Lehigh County, there was no shutoff valve near the site of the explosion, and city workers didn't have access to the utility's maps, Mayor Ed Pawlowski said.

When the main was installed in 1928, “regulations did not require installation of main valves, other than those used to control the several regulator stations feeding the city's low-pressure system,” said Joseph Swope, spokesman for UGI Utilities, which owned the line.

“There's no regulation in the state that requires these folks to share this information with us. They get away with it by saying, ‘You know, we have Homeland Security issues' and such,” Pawlowski said.

To get around the rules, some researchers are strapping methane detectors to cars and driving around cities to record readings. Rob Jackson, an environment and energy professor at Stanford University, documented 5,893 leaks in Washington, more than 10 times the number reported to the government by Washington Gas Light Co. in 2013. Jackson found 12 potentially explosive concentrations trapped under manholes.

Another group teamed with the Environmental Defense Fund and Google, mounting a methane detector to one of the cars Google uses to take photos for the “Street View” feature on Google Maps. The group made public maps of leaks in Boston, Indianapolis and New York, and said maps of more cities are to come.

The maps show hundreds of leaks from Boston's antiquated network of pipes, compared to just five in Indianapolis, where the infrastructure is newer.

Unlike Jackson's project, the Google-EDF team found no explosive levels, said Joseph von Fischer, an environmental sciences professor at Colorado State University who was involved in the study.

“The surprise was how many leaks there were,” von Fischer said. “I just couldn't believe it.”

Peoples Natural Gas Co., which owns the gas distribution network under Pittsburgh, asked the Environmental Defense Fund to bring the public mapping project to Pittsburgh.

“It's another diagnostic tool that we believe we can use. The more diagnostic tools we have, the better,” said Peoples spokesman Barry Kukovich. “... It's a complicated business, and I think the more the public knows, the better.”

Peoples plans to remove the last of its cast iron pipe this year, part of a five-year, $500 million infrastructure upgrade project.

By comparison, half of Philadelphia's 3,000 miles of gas lines are cast iron, a Trib analysis of federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration records found.

As workers dig out and replace the oldest pipe in Peoples' system, a map of leaks would show the company's progress in improving what's usually an invisible infrastructure, Kukovich said.

“I wish we would've had this map last year,” Kukovich said. “What we're going to see, if we get them in here, is those yellow circles (denoting gas leaks) disappearing year after year after year.”

The utility wants to avoid the tension that built between Allentown's city hall and UGI. It committed to help Pittsburgh's Public Works Department pick a software system that would enable the city and Peoples to share utility maps and schedules for maintenance and paving, said Guy Costa, Pittsburgh's chief operations officer.

“We own the streets. We feel we have a right to know what's under those streets,” Costa said.

The shift is a recent one for Peoples, said Ken Johnston, vice president for operations.

“We haven't done the best job we could've” with sharing pipeline infrastructure information, Johnston said. “We have committed to (city officials) that we would do a better job, in terms of working together to make sure they know where we are and we know what they're doing, particularly as it applies to the paving process.”

Most natural gas leaks aren't dangerous. The gas vents upwards, into open air, and doesn't reach explosive concentrations, Stanford professor Jackson said. But sometimes, pavement or frozen soil forces natural gas to flow sideways, trapping it underground until it seeps into cracked sewer pipes or, as in Allentown, houses.

A UGI work authorization record from December 1979 recommended replacing the pipe that caused the 2011 Allentown explosion, according to a complaint filed with the PUC by the commission's Bureau of Investigation and Enforcement.

Gas companies decide which pipes to replace by performing a risk assessment that includes a pipe's age and material, the size of leaks, and whether the leaks are likely to send gas into a contained area where it could reach an explosive concentration, said Lori Traweek, chief operating officer at the American Gas Association, an industry group headquartered in Washington.

That risk assessment allows a gas company to fix a small leak under someone's house before repairing a larger leak, say, in the middle of a field, Traweek said.

Simply dumping on the public a pile of raw data about the number of leaks, without context about whether they're dangerous, could do more harm than good, Traweek said. Frightened residents might inundate gas companies with calls about leaks that pose no risk to them, she said.

“I don't think the answer is just to publish everything,” Traweek said. “It would be hard to make that meaningful.”

Yet technological advances — such as the marriage of methane sniffers and Google Maps — make these disclosures inevitable, regardless of whether utilities and regulators want them, Jackson said.

“The public has a right to know which neighborhoods have the highest number of leaks, where the old pipes are, and what the companies are doing to replace them,” Jackson said.

Mike Wereschagin is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7900 or mwereschagin@tribweb.com.

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