Maine Natural Gas of Brunswick is being fined $50,000 by the state’s Public Utilities Commission for what the agency calls “a multi-year pattern of failures to meet minimum safety requirements.”

The utility, a subsidiary of Central Maine Power Co. parent company Avangrid that delivers pipeline gas to 4,800 customers in the Augusta, Brunswick and Windham areas, has entered into a consent agreement with the PUC’s Gas Safety Manager that includes paying the fine and agreeing to certain remedial measures.

The PUC commissioners are scheduled to vote on the agreement Wednesday.

At issue are quality assurance and quality control lapses starting in 2017 that were identified by the PUC staff. They involved record-keeping, valve inspection and leak repair.

The PUC noted an instance from 2018 that involved a damaged pipe on Union Street in Brunswick that the company was aware of but failed to replace within a reasonable time frame, as well as details concerning an adjacent joint.

During a February 2019 inspection, the PUC said, the company failed to follow operations and maintenance requirements to manage active leaks at 73 Whitten Road and 39 Sewall St. in Augusta, and at 503 Falmouth Road in Windham.

Those and other problems led to a Notice of Probable Violation from the PUC last May 31. In that notice, the PUC’s gas safety manager chastised Maine Natural Gas, writing:

“The probable violations outlined above are the result of a multi-year pattern of failures to meet minimum safety requirements in federal and state regulations despite repeated warnings issued by Gas Safety staff. The company provided assurances to gas safety staff that the (Maine Natural Gas) had a plan to address the issues, but the company never properly implemented the promised corrective actions.”

Kenny continued: “The company repeated its problematic field performance and documentation practices in the areas of leak management and valve maintenance, even though these issues were specifically identified with unsatisfactory and concerning results in (operations and maintenance) inspections performed by the MPUC Gas Safety Program.”

Asked by the Portland Press Herald why it hadn’t addressed these issues sooner, Avangrid spokesman Edward Crowder said the company was already aware of problems when the violation notice was issued and was working with the PUC to remedy them. One step was to add staff responsible for quality assurance and control.

“Maine Natural Gas takes very seriously its obligation to protect the safety of its customers, employees and community,” Crowder said in a statement.

Natural gas is the nation’s most popular heating fuel, warming half of all homes. In Maine, where heating oil remains the dominant fuel, natural gas has grown to roughly 8 percent of the home market as pipeline distribution systems expand. The number of Maine customers rose from roughly 42,000 in 2015 to 50,000 last year.

At the same time, there has been a heightened awareness around safe operation and maintenance of natural gas distribution lines in the Northeast since 2018, when a series of explosions and fires rocked the Merrimack Valley in Massachusetts.

Contractors working for Columbia Gas had disabled a pressure monitoring system, which over-pressurized the lines. One person died, 22 were injured and thousands of people were forced out of their homes. As part of a plea deal, the company was fined a record $53 million and on Monday, pleaded guilty in federal court to causing the explosions.

A deadly explosion last year in Maine, caused by drilling work to install posts in a parking lot that hit an underground propane gas line in Farmington, led to new scrutiny around gas safety. One firefighter was killed and seven people were injured

“We certainly take gas safety very seriously,” said Harry Lanphear, the PUC’s spokesman. “Since the case in Massachusetts, we’ve taken a harder looks at these things.”

Maine has four natural gas distribution companies. Many times, Lanphear noted, problems identified by the PUC staff are corrected by informal procedures with the companies. But sometimes, unresolved issues lead to civil penalties.

The PUC’s records from 2017 show Summit Natural Gas of Maine was fined $150,000 for failure to expose an existing underground sewer line and provide adequate clearance during installation using trenchless technology. It also was fined $25,000 for failure to make construction records available.

In 2018, four violations involving three companies resulted in fines.

Maine Natural Gas was fined $25,000 for failure to expose and protect an existing underground facility when installing a natural gas facility by trenchless technology. It also paid $15,000 for joining and inspecting plastic pipes without necessary qualification.

Summit was fined $15,000 for failure to construct mains in accordance with specifications and standards.

Unitil, which does business as Northern Utilities, was fined $5,000 for failing to follow procedures for classifying and repairing a leak.


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