Contractors working for Summit Natural Gas of Maine installed pipelines without proper qualifications, after which the company falsified a test to make it seem like the workforce had the required certifications, according to documents filed with the Maine Public Utilities Commission.

Summit has agreed to pay a $25,000 fine to resolve a series of safety-violation charges made this year by the PUC. The settlement, contained in a consent agreement filed Friday, stems from observations last summer. The agency’s gas safety manager had recommended a $100,000 penalty.

Still pending are resolutions to three other probable-violation notices issued by the PUC for work done by Summit or its contractors in the Kennebec Valley and Portland suburbs. One case, which received media coverage in October, alleges that Summit installed natural gas mains too close to other underground utilities, such as sewer lines. The agency is recommending a $150,000 fine in that instance.

The pattern of safety violations uncovered by the PUC raises questions about whether pressure to get thousands of customers hooked up to gas as soon as possible is leading Summit to cut corners in building its distribution network, and whether the system is as safe as it should be.

Addressing those concerns, a PUC spokesman said Wednesday that the agency is up to the task of monitoring Summit’s work, and that problem areas identified by the PUC safety staff have been reinspected.

“We don’t let gas flow until we are satisfied the system is as safe as it can be,” Harry Lanphear told the Portland Press Herald.

Natural gas warms 60 percent of American homes, but only 6 percent or so in Maine, where the safety of natural gas pipelines is an evolving issue.

Lanphear said the agency hired a third gas inspector last spring to handle the anticipated workload. The three safety inspectors have spent a total of 237 days in the field so far this year, much of their time devoted to Summit’s unprecedented pipeline expansion. He said Summit has been responsive and has spent “a fair amount of money” to correct deficiencies.

In an email reply to several questions from the Press Herald, Summit’s director of governmental and regulatory affairs in Maine defended the company’s safety record and practices. Stacey Fitts said only a small number of the 700 workers involved in the project lacked qualifications, and he maintains that the company wasn’t found to have a role in the manipulated testing.

“In all cases the work that these individuals performed has been re-inspected and in many cases replaced,” Fitts said. He described the PUC’s oversight as part of an overall process of catching mistakes before they become a safety issue.

“The pressure to get customers online never outweighed the importance to ensure the system was properly installed and safe,” Fitts said. “That is the underlying culture of Summit Natural Gas.”

Fitts said the parent company, Summit Utilities of Littleton, Colorado, operates more than 1,200 miles of pipeline and hasn’t had a major accident in 16 years.

Summit came to Maine in 2012, launching an ambitious $350 million effort to connect 15,000 homes and businesses in the Kennebec Valley within five years. This year, it’s also working in Falmouth, Cumberland and Yarmouth, where it pledged to spend $73 million to hook up 80 percent of the homes.

But Summit has been bedeviled with delays and contractor problems. It also was blindsided by the collapse of oil prices, which has temporarily erased the price advantage of natural gas over heating oil.

Despite setbacks, Summit has made a lot of progress in 2014. This week it released a list of streets in Gardiner, Hallowell, Waterville, Fairfield, Madison, Augusta and Farmingdale that have gas flowing. It also listed where gas has begun flowing in Cumberland and Falmouth. No Yarmouth streets are listed yet.

SOME WORKERS NOT CERTIFIED

Summit is spearheading the largest gas distribution project in Maine’s history. Bringing natural gas to factories, homes and small businesses is a key goal of Gov. Paul LePage, whose administration is seeking to diversify the state’s energy mix and cut dependence on fuel oil. Two years of high oil prices have set off an unprecedented wave of natural gas expansion in Maine.

Against this backdrop, the Maine PUC operates a Gas Safety Program that seeks to assure that industry activity follows state and federal rules. During a review of personnel qualification records and following observations in the field, the staff concluded that Summit committed numerous violations during construction activity while working in Augusta, Gardiner, Madison and Waterville in 2013.

Among other things, workers were seen fusing plastic pipe, then later were found not to be qualified for that task. These workers were employed by two contractors on the project, Tetra Tech Construction Inc. of Phoenix and CCB Inc. of Westbrook. In its notice, the PUC said Summit didn’t maintain adequate records or conduct adequate evaluation of worker qualifications.

When the PUC safety staff raised questions about qualifications, Summit’s lead pipeline system inspector told Tetra Tech that “it was OK,” and he would field-evaluate the workers, according to information gathered by the PUC’s gas safety manager. That was done, but Gary Kenny, the manager, noted: “It also appears that a good deal of pipe was installed in the interim, pipe that was installed by personnel (Summit) knew did not possess the proper qualifications and certifications in a rush to get pipe into the ground.”

Kenny went on to say that after Summit became aware that the PUC was interested in qualifications, it instructed Tetra Tech to gather all workers in its office. The required qualifications test was printed from an online source and the questions were read, one by one, to the entire group.

“The test takers were given the correct answer to each question,” Kenny wrote, and “everyone would mark it down.”

Afterward, a Summit representative entered the results in an online database, using different test scores “so that it didn’t look like everybody was getting 100.”

The consent agreement doesn’t specifically assign blame, but Summit agreed to have an “external proctor” give and score future tests, and maintain proper personnel documentation.

TWO CONTRACTORS SUED SUMMIT

Earlier this fall, Tetra Tech asked the PUC if it could participate in settlement talks with the agency and Summit. It also cited a letter from Summit to Tetra Tech, in which it said the gas company was attempting to blame Tetra Tech for the violations. In the end, the PUC ruled that having a contractor participate in the agency process would be unprecedented, and it denied the request.

Fitts, the regulatory affairs director at Summit, declined to comment on Tetra Tech’s charges because of pending litigation. He did say the company didn’t work for Summit this year.

In September, Tetra Tech sued Summit in federal court for breach of contract. The suit alleges that Summit underestimated the project’s budget and is refusing to pay for $3.6 million worth of extra work that Tetra Tech performed to get the job done. Summit, in its countersuit, claims that Tetra Tech broke the contract by hiring unqualified workers, inflicting on Summit “substantial damages.” No resolution has been reached in the case.

Summit also faced legal action from another of its prime contractors, Schmid Pipeline Construction Inc. of Wisconsin. The company sued Summit last year for $72 million in damages, saying Summit breached its contract and underestimated the scope of work needed on the pipeline project in the Kennebec Valley. Schmid said it needed to hire more workers, increase their hours and buy more material. In January, Summit agreed to pay $38 million to subcontractors working for Schmid.

PUC MONITORS FUSING OF PIPES

Although large, high-pressure gas mains are typically made of steel, most of the distribution lines in a modern natural gas system are made from high-density polyethylene plastic. They are pieced together using a technique called butt fusion, in which a machine applies heat and pressure to fuse two sections. In some instances, a wired coupling is placed around two pipe sections to join them with electric heat, a process called electrofusion.

As with any large construction project, it’s not possible for regulators to observe every procedure. For gas line installation, the PUC relies on a variety of measures to reduce the risk of improper work.

Regulators review a company’s operations and maintenance programs for compliance with state and federal standards, and check the records kept by the company’s inspectors. These records document every weld or fused connection. Regulators also review the various pressure testing procedures that show the line is sealed and able to handle gas. And it sends inspectors into the field to observe construction.

THREE CASES OF ALLEGED VIOLATIONS

Summit and the PUC are negotiating three other cases in which safety violations are alleged.

The sewer line case charges that Summit’s workers installed gas mains without adequately locating underground utilities. In all, 25 violations were noted last summer, mostly in Augusta and Gardiner, but also in Cumberland and Yarmouth. The most serious, in Gardiner, was noted when attempts to clear a sewer blockage eroded the wall of an improperly sited gas main.

“Had the gas main been active and there had been more aggressive attempts to clear the sewer lateral, the results may have been disastrous,” the inspector wrote.

A second case unfolded when Kenny, the PUC gas safety manager, was in his office in Hallowell last January. He heard a loud release of pressure from where Summit was working. He went outside to find a tee connection in a main line had blown off during pressure testing. He then determined that two of the workers weren’t qualified to connect the lines and that an improper clamp was used to hold the fitting, among other things. He recommended a $30,000 fine.

A third case concerns whether a machine used to fuse gas mains was operating at the correct pressure and that proper procedures were followed. Kenny recommended a $20,000 fine.

Lanphear said there are no recent violation cases concerning Summit. He also said no current issues have been reported for Maine’s three other local gas utilities, Unitil, Bangor Gas and Maine Natural Gas.

A check with the PUC in Colorado, where Summit’s parent company is based, found no current safety issues in that state. The agency said the Summit subsidiary there, Colorado Natural Gas, is a small utility and that customer satisfaction is consistent with similar-sized companies.

 Staff Writer Matt Byrne contributed to this report.