January 20

Natural gas bonanza has a downside

The two companies installing lines in central Maine have forced water utilities to divert resources.

By Michael Shepherd
Kennebec Journal

AUGUSTA — The arrival of natural gas as a major player in the Kennebec Valley last year has created hardships for the region’s sewer and water districts.

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A contractor installs a distribution line across Second Street in Hallowell for Summit Natural Gas of Maine. Work on natural gas lines has created problems for water utilities.

Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

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COLD CALL: Summit Natural Gas of Maine salesman Nick Snowdeal speaks Wednesday with Hallowell home owner Cindy Lockwood about the location of a distribution line the company is hoping to install near her home. The arrival in 2013 of natural gas firms installing underground pipes in the Kennebec Valley has strained the resources of communities and utilities.

Staff photo by Andy Molloy

Additional Photos Below

The Augusta district, for example, responded to nearly 3,000 requests to mark underground lines, about five times more than the year before.

Summit Natural Gas of Maine and Maine Natural Gas announced the start of pipeline construction in the first half of 2013. Subsequently, contractors working at a furious pace often snarled traffic across the region to complete the main pieces of the two networks.

The payoff, companies and public officials said, would be in the fuel. The companies touted 30 percent to 50 percent savings on heating costs compared to oil as they competed to sign up Augusta businesses. Summit built a far-reaching network, stretching from Pittston to Madison, while Maine Natural Gas focused more on the Augusta area.

But water utility officials say there will be, and have been, costs associated with the rapid expansion.

Water districts spent much of 2013 monitoring quick-developing natural gas installation projects, delaying some of their own maintenance projects to respond to calls to mark the sites of existing utility lines.

“They’ve been running and we’ve been chasing them ever since,” said Paul Gray, superintendent of the Gardiner Water District.

Brian Tarbuck, general manager of the Greater Augusta Utility District, said employees were called to review dig sites more than 2,900 times in 2013, a nearly fivefold increase compared to the 612 requests it got in 2012, leading the district to hire a second employee to handle requests.

The Maine Water Utilities Association, an advocacy group for districts, may propose legislation to widen the distance between natural gas and other underground utilities, said Jeffrey McNelly, the association’s executive director, citing a close call in central Maine.

“We don’t go looking for problems,” he said, “but this caught us kind of unawares.”

Michael Duguay, Summit’s director of business development, said he realizes utilities are dealing with new challenges, but the benefits will outweigh costs.

“For some people, just having another utility in the ground is going to be too much,” he said. “The public way is a public resource and that goes to the taxpayer. I think they have the right to lower fuel costs.”

Watching the roads

The projects were made possible with road-opening permits, granted by the state and municipalities.

Augusta issued 170, and Lesley Jones, the public works director, said about half of her and her street superintendent’s time in 2013 was spent on permitting, compared to a small share of time in normal years.

“It’s the cost of progress,” she said. “We’re happy to have gas, but it was a hard year for us and the Greater Augusta Utility District.”

The Maine Department of Transportation regulates state roads, while cities and towns manage their roads. The state also sets standards for natural gas pipelines’ proximity to other utilities.

Natural gas lines must be at least a foot from other utilities; on state roads, the transportation department requires a three-foot separation, said Harry Lanphear, spokesman for the Maine Public Utilities Commission, an industry regulator.

Lanphear said his eight-employee electric and gas division, mostly composed of lawyers and analysts, conducts financial investigations of utilities. Another five employees work on gas safety, conducting field investigations, evaluating processes and working to ensure compliance with laws and rules.

During pipeline construction, employees are in the field watching crews “virtually every day,” he said. The division also enforces Maine’s dig safe laws, with the ability to penalize contractors who violate rules.

There were violations on the Summit and Maine Natural Gas projects, but the scope is unclear as violations are issued to contractors who may have been working on something other than a natural gas installation.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Gas impact: Brian Tarbuck of the Greater Augusta Utilities District at his Augusta office on Wednesday.

Staff photo by Andy Molloy

  


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