Summit Natural Gas of Maine has been ordered by state regulators to check hundreds of pipeline fittings that may have been installed improperly by three of its subcontractors that worked on the company’s pipeline network in central Maine.

The company has agreed to finish the inspections of its pipeline system by Dec. 31, according to a mitigation plan filed with the Maine Public Utilities Commission.

That means it will dig up sections of roads across the Kennebec Valley and inspect hundreds of electrofusion couplings, which connect segments of the gas pipeline, and conduct visual and physical tests to determine whether the equipment was installed correctly.

In an interview Wednesday night, Kurt Adams, president and CEO of Colorado-based Summit Utilities, said inspection work would conclude a problematic chapter of Summit’s 2013 and 2014 building seasons.

“I don’t think our customers or towns we are operating in are surprised that there were some significant problems with the 2013-14 construction,” Adams said. “We believe the system is safe and able to serve our customers well, but at the end of the day, we want to make sure it meets the highest safety standards and safety standards required by the commission.”

The work should not result in service interruptions and will mean limited disruption, Adams said, likening it to “routine maintenance.”

The company has been working on its remediation plan for the last two weeks and already has inspected dozens of couplings.

The state utilities commission discovered the problems earlier this year while Summit was replacing other faulty pipeline connections.

“We have been working with Summit over most of the summer to determine the best way for the company to address this coupling issue,” Harry Lanphear, administrative director of the utilities commission, said Wednesday.

“Our primary concern is safety of the public,” Lanphear said. “Issues like this are important to be addressed quickly.”

Even so, there have been no documented gas leaks in Summit’s pipeline network, Lanphear said. Meantime, the utilities commission has asked the company to test the affected sections of its pipeline for leaks every 30 days.

If Summit misses the end-of-year inspection deadline – a scenario Adams called unlikely – the company will provide a contingency plan to shut down its operations in the affected portions of its distribution system and provide customers with alternative fuel sources at no extra cost to the customer, according to its mitigation plan. It is expected to submit its draft contingency plan to the commission Thursday.

“There is always uncertainty where there is weather involved, but we think it is a fair time frame,” Adams said of the Dec. 31 deadline.

The company is focusing its efforts on the Waterville and Augusta areas, where the three subcontractors – Tetra Tech, a national company with offices in Portland; CCB Inc., based in Westbrook; and PES – were hired to install hundreds of electrofusion couplings, which connect segments of piping in the natural gas line. In its mitigation plan, Summit said the contractors have “a demonstrated history of improper pipe preparation.”

Earlier this year, Summit was forced to inspect and replace more than half of residential pipe connections called electrofusion tees that were installed in 2014 in the Waterville area.

‘AN ABUNDANCE OF CAUTION’

Records filed with the utility commission show that Summit officials initially resisted a large inspection effort to address the problem.

In a letter sent to utility commissioners Sept. 17, four days before Summit ultimately filed its mitigation plan, Bryan Little, Summit’s vice president for government and regulatory affairs, said the company believed the couplings were safe – even those installed by the three contractors. The couplings had passed pressure testing, were installed differently from the electrofusion tees, and had been subjected to multiple freeze/thaw cycles, he wrote.

In addition, a “blanket requirement” to locate, inspect and replace all couplings would require the company to “excavate nearly its entire distribution system” because Summit was not required to mark the locations of the couplings and did not know the exact locations for most of them, Little wrote.

“The scope of such a project would be so vast that any improvement in public safety resulting from the replacement of all couplings would be dramatically outweighed by the potential damage to the system by the magnitude of the excavation required to locate all of the couplings,” Little wrote in the letter.

Instead, the company suggested that “monitoring and management” was the appropriate way to address concerns raised by PUC staff, adding that it would monitor the integrity of the pipeline system closely and take necessary action if problems arose.

Summit “is confident that its system in service today is safe and that further excavation and inspection is unnecessary given the measures and plans that are currently in place,” Little wrote.

Yet Summit submitted its plan for a systemwide inspection four days after sending that letter.

Lanphear said that in phone calls and meetings in the days after receiving the company’s letter, the PUC “held firm” to its position that the couplings needed to be inspected.

“We consider this a potential safety issue that we felt absolutely needed to be addressed,” Lanphear said.

Matt Kaply, Summit’s director of regulatory affairs, said Wednesday that the company still believes the couplings are not a safety concern, but the commission ultimately had final say on what the company must do.

“At the time, the commission, out of an abundance of caution, wanted us to do more, so we are doing more,” Kaply said.

Instead of digging the entire network up, Summit will instead conduct a more exhaustive records search and use other techniques to locate the potentially faulty couplings, according to Adams.

‘A SYSTEMIC ISSUE’

Possible issues with the couplings were discovered this summer, while Summit was in the process of testing and replacing hundreds of residential connections, or electrofusion tees, that were believed to be incorrectly installed by CCB Inc.

The company’s final tally, in July, showed that about three-quarters of the tees in the Waterville, Fairfield and Madison areas failed a visual inspection.

According to the PUC order for Summit to comply with its mitigation plan, the commission’s manager of gas safety notified the company about a fitting that appeared to be improperly prepared.

The equipment in question was sent back to the manufacturer, where it failed standards testing because the installer had not removed or abraded any part of the pipe before installing the coupling.

“When the testing came back and the coupling failed, that, in addition to other visual inspections, really led us to believe this is more than a small issue – this is really a systemic issue across their system,” Lanphear said.

The company will inspect more than 600 couplings installed on the system, Adams said.

In its mitigation plan, Summit said it intended to visually inspect all the couplings installed by the three contractors, and those failing the inspection will be replaced. Additionally, a minimum of five couplings installed by each contractor that pass visual inspection will be sent to the manufacturer for testing and if any fail, all couplings installed by the contractor will be replaced.

The PUC will be given a weekly update. During the three-month inspection, the company will run its system at reduced pressure.