The federal government’s pipeline safety agency says the Portland Natural Gas Transmission System has failed to inspect its 143-mile transmission line as required.

The pipeline operator is supposed to inspect its entire transmission line from the air once a week to search for evidence of leaks, and do quarterly inspections in places where the pipeline crosses roads.

Bryon Coy, Eastern region director of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, issued a warning letter Aug. 22 based on an inspection of the pipeline’s records at its office in Windham and interviews with employees in September 2010.

The pipeline, 24 inches in diameter, runs from the Canadian border to Westbrook, carrying natural gas from Canada to Maine and elsewhere.

The letter was cited by the website NaturalGasWatch.org as an example of infrastructure neglect by the natural gas industry.

“What this letter from the federal agency tells me is, these folks were falling down on the job with respect to maintaining that (safety) vigilance,” said Frank Gallagher, editor of the website. “What history shows is that pipelines leak, particularly in areas like New England, where you have radical changes in ground conditions.”

Gallagher said the issue is particularly important given Gov. Paul LePage’s recent suggestion that Maine must shift its energy reliance away from oil and toward natural gas.

TransCanada, majority owner and operator of the pipeline, said it has been doing the aerial surveys and quarterly ground inspections that are called for in a waiver of its permit since the deficiencies turned up in the audit a year ago.

“We totally acknowledge we misinterpreted the waiver, and when it was uncovered in the audit we took corrective action,” said David Dodson, a spokesman for TransCanada.

Company officials believed that the inspection requirement applied only to areas of high population density, he said.

The letter says that the aerial inspections were scheduled and done biweekly but later says the company that was hired to do them, Maine Aviation, stopped in 2007 because it couldn’t find qualified pilots. The letter doesn’t make reference to TransCanada misinterpreting the requirements.

Leaks show up in aerial inspections because nearby vegetation dies. The warning letter does not indicate that any leaks have been detected.

The letter states that violating pipeline safety requirements could draw steep fines, but the agency’s website notes that warning letters are typically issued for administrative violations that do not pose serious or imminent risk to people or the environment.

The agency says the case is closed.

The Portland Natural Gas Transmission System actually proposed the increased inspections in 2004 as part of a modification of its license. After a mobile home park was built in West Stewartstown, N.H., the company would have been obligated to make major safety improvements to the line there, even though it was only 4 years old.

The company proposed a series of other changes to ensure the pipeline’s integrity and make it safer without the required improvements. The changes included the weekly aerial inspections and the quarterly road-crossing inspections.

The letter from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration requires no response from the company but could lead to more serious enforcement if the same problems are found in a future inspection.

“We issue the warning letters to have operators address the problem so we don’t have any more serious safety issues,” said Damon Hill, spokesman for the administration.

 

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at: [email protected]