The Office of the Ohio Consumers' Counsel (OCC) went public Wednesday in opposition to a request by Columbia Gas of Ohio to collect from its customers any current or future costs related to an investigation of natural gas risers, which are the vertical portion of the service line that connect the pipeline to the customer's meter. The residential consumer utility advocate said in a filing at the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) that the costs associated with the risers, or the investigation of the risers, should not fall to consumers.

Columbia asked the PUCO in early February to approve an "unprecedented new program" that would "improve customer safety" and "relieve customers of the burden of unexpected replacement costs for customer-owned natural gas piping." Under the proposal, Columbia would spend up to $200 million to identify and replace certain types of risers, a portion of the customer-owned natural gas piping that the PUCO has concluded may leak if improperly installed. In addition, Columbia could assume responsibility for maintenance and replacement of all customer service lines. Columbia Gas was quick to point out that the lines are owned by the customer, not by the utility.

Based on a study by the PUCO, Columbia estimates that up to 400,000 of its customers could have risers that may be prone to failure. These risers were installed by builders or subcontractors. PUCO Chairman Alan Schriber has called on utilities to replace failed risers immediately.

The OCC said that Columbia Gas' proposal to recover more than $250,000 it allegedly already spent and up to $8 million in future costs comes after a November 2006 PUCO staff report on a statewide investigation into the installation, use and performance of natural gas service risers.

"The OCC maintains that consumers should not have to bear the costs of repairing or replacing faulty natural gas risers," said Janine Migden-Ostrander, consumers' counsel. "Columbia has the responsibility for inspecting the installation of the natural gas risers to ensure that they are installed correctly and safely."

The OCC believes that Columbia's request should be denied because:

The OCC filed its recommendations for handling the repair or replacement of faulty risers at the PUCO on Feb. 5. The recommendations by the OCC include:

Columbia Gas acknowledged that its proposed program would not be without its hardships. "This program is unprecedented and it will be costly," said Jack Partridge, president of Columbia Gas. "But it's the right thing to do, and the potential benefits to our customers are significant and undeniable. Chairman Schriber has rightly focused Ohio's natural gas utilities on a situation that requires attention and action.

"The scope of this program far surpasses any our company has ever attempted," he added. "But it's an absolute necessity from a public safety standpoint, and we are committed to work with the PUCO, the plumbing community, and our customers to complete this important work as soon as possible."

The utility said the program's total cost would depend primarily on the number of these risers the company finds. As recommended by the PUCO, Columbia has begun a statewide riser survey and is mobilizing additional resources to complete it as soon as possible. The survey will include a check for leaks on customer-owned service lines. The company will mail notification letters to customers who own the riser types in question. Leaking risers will be dealt with immediately.

Columbia Gas of Ohio serves approximately 1.4 million customers in 64 of Ohio's 88 counties; it is the largest natural gas utility in the state.

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