– By DENNIS HOEY

Staff Writer

PORTLAND -  Sixty-five miles of aging cast iron and 10 miles of bare steel natural-gas pipes should be replaced gradually, not at the accelerated pace the staff of Maine’s Public Utilities Commission has recommended, city and state officials said Wednesday night during a public hearing at City Hall.

The commissioners were urged to consider the economy and the financial effect that an accelerated replacement project would have on ratepayers in 26 communities that are served by Unitil — formerly Northern Utilities.

“This is not the time to choose the more expensive option,” said Carol A. Kontos, the new state president of Maine’s AARP Chapter.

The PUC’s staff has recommended that natural-gas pipe systems in Portland and Westbrook be replaced within 12 years, at an estimated cost of $64 million.

But the state’s public advocate and Unitil have recommended approaches that could take 20 to 30 years. The more conservative approach would ease the burden on consumers, they say.

“It seems apparent that this looming rate increase is being made based on an entirely optional and discretionary proposal and that it is not based on any sound evidence that there is a safety issue,” said Rep. Margaret R. Rotundo of Lewiston, one of four state legislators who testified against the accelerated option.

Chairwoman Sharon Reishus said the board will consider public input before deliberating the issue at the end of June. The PUC will then issue an order directing Unitil to follow the staff recommendation or take an “opportunistic” approach to replacing the gas pipes.

Unitil has proposed a third option — replacing pipes over 15 to 20 years and moving more than 10,000 gas meters from inside to outside houses and buildings.

Reishus said 96 percent of the cast iron pipes still in use are more than 70 years old. Removing cast iron and bare steel pipe has been a focus of regulatory efforts to improve public safety since the late 1990s.

Under the more gradual approach supported by Public Advocate Richard Davies, Unitil would replace cast iron pipes with polyethylene plastic piping whenever a community excavates a street to do utility repairs. Davies said that would cost $40 to $52 million.

“There is no safety benefit of investing $64 million at an accelerated pace,” Davies said before the hearing.

Mike Bobinsky, Portland’s director of public services, spoke against the accelerated option, saying it would force the city to dig up streets that are not scheduled for utility repairs.

“We are a pretty big city and we have a lot of stuff going on,” said Portland City Councilor Dory Richards Waxman. “This kind of project would impact our citizens in a big way.”

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

[email protected]