Decrepit Pa. natural gas utility pipelines years from upgrade

Mike Wereschagin
| Saturday, Nov. 1, 2014, 10:20 p.m.

A child born today will be ready to graduate from high school by the time local natural gas utilities remove their last cast iron and bare steel pipes from beneath Western Pennsylvania, a Tribune-Review investigation has found.

In Philadelphia, that child could grow up, graduate from high school and college, raise a family, retire and die before Philadelphia Gas Works expects to replace the last of its corrosion-prone metal pipe in 2100.

Pennsylvania's natural gas utilities say that replacing the iron and uncoated steel lines in distribution systems that carry gas to homes and businesses will take decades and billions of dollars, according to documents filed with the state Public Utility Commission. The commission relies on utilities to monitor lines for leaks.

“The utilities, for some time, they forgot about these pipes,” said Mohammad Najafi, an engineer and director of the Center for Underground Infrastructure Research at the University of Texas at Austin. “They thought they'd last forever.”

Accidents involving natural gas distribution pipelines in the United States — not to be confused with larger, higher-pressure, interstate transmission lines — have killed more than 120 people and caused more than $775 million in damage since 2004, according to a Trib analysis of data from the federal pipeline safety agency, the Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

Among the deadliest distribution accidents was a 2011 blast that killed five people and destroyed a city block in Allentown in Lehigh County.

Engineers designed distribution systems with cast iron and bare steel pipes that they expected to last for about 50 years, Najafi said. But more than one in five miles of Pennsylvania's gas distribution pipe is older than that.

The rusting line running beneath Frank Hiler's 5-acre property in Washington Township, Westmoreland County, was more than 50 years old when he moved in 52 years ago, he said. During the decades since, Peoples Natural Gas has repaired at least four leaks. Hiler once found a portion of exposed pipe on his hillside that had rust spots as big as his thumb.

“They did lower it so it's not exposed,” said Hiler, 78. “But it's still a worry.”

Peoples Gas workers walk the 10-inch steel line once every three years to check for leaks, said Barry Kukovich, the company's spokesman. During at least 17 visits over the years, including regular inspections, the company fixed several leaks in the 1920s-era pipe caused by rusting and the freeze-thaw cycle, Kukovich said.

“It's still a good line,” he said.

Philadelphia residents are served by more than 250 miles of gas mains laid in the 1800s, federal data show.

‘Safety versus cost'

Neither state nor federal regulators have the manpower to monitor the country's 1.2 million miles of gas mains. The state employs 12 gas safety inspectors, including one supervisor, who oversee a distribution network with nearly 48,000 miles of gas mains — about 4,000 miles per inspector. Gas mains are the primary distribution lines that feed the service lines to a home or business.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration employs 135 inspectors nationwide. They oversee nearly 1.3 million miles of gas distribution mains and 320,000 miles of interstate transmission and gathering lines, liquefied natural gas plants and hazardous liquid tanks.

“We have confidence in what our inspectors are doing and in what they are able to do,” said PUC spokeswoman Jennifer Kocher. “In an ideal world, would we like to have many more blanketing the state? Absolutely, but it's a balance ... of safety versus cost.”

It's unlikely Congress will help cover the cost to increase the number of inspectors, said Sen. Bob Casey Jr., D-Scranton, who co-sponsored a pipeline safety law that tightened regulations and increased fines on gas companies after the Allentown blast.

“With Washington focused on austerity, managing budget cuts takes precedence over increasing spending,” he said.

The PUC collected $3.1 million in penalties from gas companies for safety violations in Pennsylvania from 2004 through 2013. That total, which goes into the state's general fund, was third-highest in the nation. Virginia was second at $5 million.

California collected $63 million in fines, which is more than the rest of the country combined. California law allows its utility commissioners, who oversee the nation's largest gas distribution system, to fine companies as much as $50,000 a day for violations.

Pennsylvania law limited the maximum fine against a natural gas utility to $500,000 until a 2012 law passed after the Allentown explosion increased the limit to $2 million.

More than two-thirds of Pennsylvania's $3.1 million in fines occurred in just the past year. From 2004 to 2012, the state collected $878,000.

It can take as long as five years for PUC commissioners to set a fine when its Bureau of Investigation and Enforcement finds a violation, Kocher said. A gas company's incentive to operate safely begins with its bottom line, she said.

“If their pipes aren't working, aren't safe and have other issues, they're going to lose money,” Kocher said. “Any type of catastrophic incident costs them money. Beyond that is the safety issue. They don't want to have leaks or catastrophic explosions any more than we do.”

Measuring risk

But with pipeline replacement costs topping $1 million a mile in some parts of Pennsylvania, gas companies run cost-benefit analyses on which sections of pipe they need to remove — and which they think can last awhile longer.

Sometimes they get it wrong.

The cast iron pipe that caused the Allentown blast was flagged for replacement by a UGI Utilities worker in 1979, according to a PUC filing.

“You can have a cast iron main that can last 150 years or more and doesn't need replacement because it was properly installed and wasn't put into an area with a lot of pressure around it,” said Barry O'Sullivan, spokesman for Philadelphia Gas Works. “The reality is for a lot of the cast iron main we have here, there's nothing inherently wrong with that material.”

Philadelphia Gas Works owns nearly half of the 3,000 miles of cast iron pipe buried in the state. The utility's distribution system sprang 89 leaks per 100 miles of mains last year. That's more than twice the state average and almost eight times the national average, according to company and federal data the Trib reviewed.

Walking the line

Columbia Gas of Pennsylvania, whose distribution system serves Western Pennsylvania and extends as far east as Chester County, sends workers armed with gas detectors to walk along its 7,400 miles of mains in the state each year, spokeswoman Brynnly Schwartz said.

They feed data from those detectors into a computer program called Optimain DS. The program analyzes the leak reports, age and location of pipes, types of ground cover and other factors to identify the sections that seem most likely to fail, Schwartz said.

Most utilities accelerated pipeline replacement programs when the 2012 state law allowed them to increase customers' bills by as much as 5 percent until they recover the cost. Columbia started its major improvement program in 2007 and has spent $685 million on line replacement. The company expects to wrap up in 2029, earlier than every other utility in Pennsylvania.

Like the rest of the industry, Columbia uses protected steel for its high-pressure transmission pipes but relies on plastic for most distribution system line replacement.

“It has more strength and flexibility. It's generally immune to the stress of ground movement. It's cheaper to buy and less costly to install,” Schwartz said.

And plastic does not corrode. Cast iron and bare steel account for 95 percent of gas leaks, even though they make up less than 6 percent of the United States' gas distribution network, according to the PUC.

Slow motion

PECO Energy reports the second-most cast iron pipe in the state and has the second-leakiest system, with 66 leaks per 100 miles of natural gas distribution mains last year, data show. Philadelphia-based PECO serves Southeastern Pennsylvania.

Columbia Gas reports 39 leaks. Peoples, which expects to remove the last of its cast iron pipe this year, reports 34 leaks per 100 miles of gas mains. The state average is 37 leaks.

PECO plans to replace its 1,700 miles of iron and bare steel pipe in 33 years. The utility's timeline was 85 years until the 5 percent infrastructure improvement charge, spokesman Greg Smore said.

“Although PECO's natural gas distribution system continues to perform well, in consideration of recent industry events, PECO has accelerated work to replace cast iron and bare steel main and service lines with plastic piping,” Smore said.

But if gas utilities had planned ahead, Najafi argued, the estimated $11 billion cost to replace all the risky metal pipe would not be so daunting.

If utilities were “gradually replacing these, if they put money aside for this,” he said, “you wouldn't hear them say, ‘I need $11 billion. Where do I get that money?' ”

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

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