A gas leak in Augusta that forced the evacuation of buildings in February in a shopping plaza on Western Avenue and other safety violations will cost Summit Natural Gas of Maine $307,000 in fines, according to the Maine Public Utilities Commission.

The fine is part of a consent agreement between Summit and the state Tuesday that includes an additional $57,000 in fines related to violations that included improper installations, unqualified employees and failing to locate underground facilities, according to the agreement.

The fine money will be paid to the state, according to the PUC, which said the safety violations resulted from construction work by the company and subcontractors beginning during 2012 and 2014. The Feb. 17 gas leak was labeled as potentially “catastrophic.”

It was repaired the following morning, and the businesses in Shaw’s Plaza opened as usual.

Summit officials later determined the leak was caused by an unmarked underground electrical line that burned a hole in the gas line.

In the consent agreement, it said that Summit, beginning with the 2015 construction season “instituted improved processes aimed at ensuring that the contractors it hires to perform future work on its distribution systems, and the company personnel who supervise that work, will be properly qualified to perform the work for which they were hired, and that their work will comply with applicable regulatory requirements. These processes include heightened oversight of contractors by Summit personnel and revisions to the company’s construction manual.”


It said that to implement the changes, “Summit made changes in key management and operational personnel” that addressed the concerns raised by the state.

One of the changes Summit made in 2015 was hiring a new CEO, Kurt Adams.

“Safety is the foundation of Summit’s approach to providing natural gas service,” Adams said in a news release Tuesday from the company. He said in the past year, “we have worked hard to strengthen our pipeline safety standards in an effort to ensure the integrity of our system. With our new standards in place, we are eager to move forward focused on our goal of providing safe, reliable and clean-burning natural gas to people and businesses in Maine.”

While the Augusta gas leak in February was the most visible of the problems stemming from the 2013 and 2014 violations, an inspection by the company ordered by the PUC uncovered 588 electro-fusion couplings installed incorrectly by three contractors – Tetra Tech, PES and a company identified only as “Contractor X” – during the company’s Kennebec Valley build-out in 2013-14, and covered its network in the Augusta and Waterville areas.

In its filing with the PUC, Summit said that Contractor X is a pseudonym used because the terms of a settlement between Summit and the company prohibit Summit from making public references to it “that could be construed as negative.”

The commission gave Summit until Dec. 31, 2015, to complete its inspection program or find alternate heating fuel for affected customers, and said in December that Summit was on schedule to meet that deadline. Tuesday’s consent agreement underlines that, and with it Summit agreed to pay fines recommended by the gas safety staff at the PUC.


The Augusta Fire Department responded and authorities evacuated the buildings during the February gas leak.

At the time, David Groder, deputy chief of the Augusta Fire Department, said, “We got some pretty high readings. We’ve had minor (gas leaks) happen, but this is probably the largest scale I’ve seen in the area. The readings were high enough they got our attention and we reacted based on those.”

The gas safety staff at the PUC had recommended that Summit pay $250,000 for that leak alone, noting in a finding that the incident could have “caused multiple fatalities.”

In investigating the Augusta incident, the gas safety staff found that Summit had failed to maintain the required clearance from other utilities.

“These violations are extremely serious given the potential consequences,” the notice reads. “The failure to excavate or otherwise protect the underground electrical lines resulted in the migration of gas through large portions of the area surrounding the leak. In some locations, gas had concentrated into an explosive mixture of gas and air, creating an immediate and extremely serious threat to life and safety.

“Had the gas continued its migration, and entered a nearby building – for example, the Applebee’s restaurant – and ignited, the resulting damage could have been catastrophic and caused multiple fatalities.”


There have been a handful of minor Summit gas leaks in recent years.

In 2013, an apparent leak blew off a manhole cover and cracked pavement on Arsenal Street in Augusta; while about a year ago, gas leaked at a Hallowell school. Both Maine Natural Gas and Summit Natural Gas began installing pipeline in the region to service businesses and residences about four years ago.

“Safety in the natural gas industry is dependent on consistent and unwavering attention to detail,” PUC Chairman Mark Vannoy said during deliberations Tuesday night. He noted that Summit overhauled its quality assurance processes, oversight of subcontractors and internal company training and its construction manual.

Commissioner Carlisle McLean said the commission’s investigation “may have prompted” Summit Natural Gas to take a hard look at its management and contracting practices.

Kennebec Journal staff writers Betty Adams and Madeline St. Amour contributed to this story.

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