A report from Maine Public Utilities Commission staff indicates Northern Utilities, under pressure of an upcoming full management audit, may take over its natural gas pipeline mapping and location services.

The commission began an investigation into Northern Utilities last month following a failure to reach a resolution on three probable federal gas safety violations issued – the first such violations issued by the commission since 2000. A sudden rash of gas leaks in September and October, including one that led to a house explosion in South Portland, led commission to order a full management audit and the commission staff to file the report Oct. 26 that indicated a concern about inaccurate and non-existent maps for gas pipelines.

While the management audit of Northern Utilities moves forward, the commission is emphasizing to excavators that they follow Dig Safe rules and use caution. Two of the last three recent gas leaks occurred when excavators hit unmapped natural gas pipelines on Speirs Street in Westbrook.

“In my opinion, all the old guys who really know where those (pipelines) are have retired,” said Linda Woodbury, 62, who lives in the apartment building she owns on Speirs Street, and was at home the first time the street was evacuated on Oct. 18. “I think they should have better records.”

The two leaks on Speirs Street occurred when excavators hit unmapped “stubs” while digging to reach water lines for renovations at the old St. Mary’s School. The stubs were pipelines that had been cut off with the removal of old buildings.

James Phelps of Phelps Excavating hit the second stub on Oct. 23 and said the experience was “nerve wracking,” knowing that any moment something could ignite or a house could explode, as one had in South Portland just three weeks prior.

From the start of 2003 through June of this year, three of these so-called “stubs” have been hit by excavators. With the two incidents on Speirs Street in October added in, there have been five unmapped stubs hit by excavators.

“It’s a cause of concern to the commission,” said Fred Bever, spokesman for the commission.

“Should the commission identify something that could be a larger problem, they would get the staff to look at it,” Bever said. He said public safety is of the utmost priority.

The commission staff report states that “for several decades Northern had a practice of cutting off and capping inactive services various distances from the main and disposing of the service cards. This has left live ‘stubs’ in public right of ways and on private property for which Northern has no records.”

Commission staff indicated in its report that they are pleased with Northern Utilities’ proposals to remedy some of the commission’s concerns, which include pipeline mapping, notice to homeowners of live pipelines on their property and the practice of paving over valve boxes, which connect to the gas lines and can be used to turn off the gas flow. The utility company has proposed to bring its mapping service in-house – it is currently contracted to On Target Locating, based in Gardiner – and to research new technology to locate underground pipes that don’t have records.

The incomplete investigation into the Oct. 1 explosion of a house on D Street in South Portland points to a 4-foot discrepancy between where the pipe is located and what Northern Utilities’ records show. That accident also occurred when an excavator hit the pipeline. The commission issued to Northern Utilities a notice of probable violation of Dig Safe regulations – a less severe violation than the three previous probable federal gas safety regulations – for reckless or negligent marking of gas pipelines.

Bever said, generally speaking, gas leaks that occur with Dig Safe violations are the fault of the excavator 55 percent of the time, and the fault of the utility operator 45 percent of the time.

Northern Utilities suggested, according to the commission staff report, that the excavator’s attempts to stop the leak with a rag may have contributed to the gas seeping into the house and thus the explosion. Broken pipelines should be left to spew their gas into the air, according to Northern Utilities’ safety precautions.

Christi Zachman, who works at the office of attorney Charles Bean, located across the street from the D Street explosion, was away from the office for an appointment when the accident occurred, but she saw when she returned to the office that everything on her desk had been moved from the impact of the blast.

“It made us a little nervous for a while,” Zachman said. She said that, from her understanding, Northern Utilities responded to a call of a possible leak and then gave the all-clear. Not 30 minutes later the house exploded. She said she’s not sure if she’ll believe what she’s been told about the safety of the gas lines.

Zachman said that Bean lives on Oakhurst Street in Cape Elizabeth, and was also evacuated from his home on Oct. 8 when another gas leak occurred at 87 Oakhurst St.

On the other side of D Street, Alex Notis owns the Bridgeway Restaurant. He wasn’t on site when the blast occurred either, but showed up just minutes later before the police or fire department showed up. He said the scene was chaos, with gas workers running in every direction.

“It was just a freak accident,” he said. “Hopefully. You can’t worry about it. You’d go crazy thinking about that all the time.”

Northern Utilities contends that geospatial positioning systems, geospatial information systems and radar devices could assist the company in locating the pipelines. It has proposed that by bringing its locating services in-house, it could cut the locating error rate from 40 percent to 10 percent. Northern Utilities looked into radar devices five years ago, but the technology was deemed insufficient at the time. It is ready to research new technologies.

Addressing homeowner notification, the issue stemming from the incident in Cape Elizabeth, where a homeowner on Oakhurst Street caused a gas leak by removing piping that he did not believe contained gas, Northern Utilities is proposing to increase public awareness about gas lines through staff training, recorded messages for callers and public service advertisements.

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