The Maine Public Utilities Commission (MPUC) last week ordered an investigation of the safety practices of Northern Utilities following several high profile incidents in the last few months. The commission also wants to know how the natural gas utility manages its operations and maintenance program.

In its first regular session since a vacant house in South Portland, ME, was leveled and a gas leak in Cape Elizabeth, ME, forced a neighborhood to evacuate, the MPUC considered whether a review of Northern's practices was warranted. The commissioners agreed to a staff recommendation to investigate whether the recent incidents were an indication that Northern was not providing "safe, reasonable and adequate service to customers in Maine," as required under state law. Northern serves about 46,000 gas customers in Maine and New Hampshire.

"Ensuring public safety is first on the list of the commission's duties in overseeing regulated utilities," said MPUC Chair Kurt Adams. "Essential services like gas must continue to be safely delivered to our homes."

The MPUC cited several recent events that raised its concern:

"These incidents compel us to question whether Northern is managing safety operations as effectively as it should," Adams said. "When you look at the recent range of accidents, mishaps and operations and management procedure violations, a management audit is required. We are pleased that Northern has indicated a willingness to address these issues."

According to the MPUC, the audit is likely to include extensive interviews and record checks to detail how Northern conducts day-to-day management and operations, and whether safety issues are properly addressed.

The commissioners also asked the MPUC staff to perform a short-term analysis of three issues they have identified as potentially of immediate concern:

The commissioners asked staff to report on the three issues within two weeks. Staff may recommend a range of responses, from further analysis as part of the comprehensive management audit to immediate action.

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