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Washington Regulatory Staff Cites Cascade Pipe Safety Violations

Washington state regulatory commission staff on Monday filed a complaint against Cascade Natural Gas Co. alleging "serious safety violations" in the operation of the utility's natural gas distribution system in parts of the state. The Kennewick, WA-based MDU Resources Group utility contends that its system is safe, although it does not dispute the allegations, a company spokesperson told NGI Tuesday.

Staff of the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC) cited more than 364 violations of what it characterized as many different gas safety rules and recommended a penalty for the Pacific Northwest utility. For now, the UTC staff complaint does not specify an amount for the penalty, although under Washington law UTC may impose penalties of up to $100,000 for each violation of gas safety rules with a limit of $1 million for related violations.

A utility spokesperson at Bismarck, ND-based MDU said many of the citations are related to improper documentation of the utility's pipeline safety work. "Cascade recognizes this problem and is working with the commission to remedy the issues and become fully compliant," he told NGI. "We feel strongly that our system is safe; however, we have not met all the requirements to document those safety actions."

Based on the staff action, the three-member UTC will set a schedule for hearing the complaint, and the utility then has 20 days to file its answer. The regulators are not bound by staff recommendations.

UTC staff conducted a two-year investigation involving five Cascade operating districts, and some of what the staff called the "more significant alleged violations" involved the utility's operating gas pressures being at higher than allowed levels; not performing regular leak detection surveys; and failing to inspect for pipeline corrosion every three years.

Allowable operating pressures have become one of the focal points of state and federal regulators following the San Bruno, CA, transmission pipeline rupture last September and several subsequent distribution and transmission pipeline mishaps in the East (see Daily GPI, Jan. 5).

Other alleged violations the UTC staff said it uncovered include improperly installed equipment, outdated system maps, poor record keeping of pipeline maintenance reports and "a failure to set up a public education program" aimed at informing residents and emergency first responders to various pipeline safety issues. The latter is a national concern currently at the federal Pipeline Hazardous Materials and Safety Administration in the Department of Transportation.

"We are committed to correcting [any lack of safety documentation] and to maintain thorough documentation on a going-forward basis," the MDU utility spokesperson said.

Cascade Natural Gas serves nearly 200,000 residential and business customers in 65 communities throughout Washington state. It has 4,436 miles of gas distribution and transmission pipelines in the state that are regulated by the UTC.

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