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Unitil Beginning Replacement of Aging Pipe in Maine

Portland, ME-based Unitil Corp. is embarking on a 14-year project to replace more than 100 miles of pipeline throughout Portland and Westbrook, ME. Some of the cast iron pipes to be replaced with plastic pipe are more than 100 years old.

"The SURE [system upgrade for reliable energy] project will modernize this area's gas infrastructure, making it more reliable and better able to meet the growing demand for natural gas in Maine," said Unitil spokesman Alec O'Meara.

Unitil said "there are no imminent safety concerns with the existing" pipe. Natural gas pipeline safety has become a concern nationwide, following several incidents of pipeline ruptures and/or explosions, some of them taking lives. The most notable was the rupture and explosion of a Pacific Gas & Electric pipeline in San Bruno, CA, last September (see Daily GPI, March 25; Sept. 13, 2010).

Unitil inherited the aging pipelines from predecessor company Northern Utilities in 2008 (see Daily GPI, Aug. 28, 2008). The upgraded system will operate at a higher pressure, "resulting in more reliable service for commercial and industrial users and large public facilities," the utility said.

Unitil said the project is the largest of its kind in the Northeast. It was approved by the Maine Public Utilities Commission (MPUC) last July. According to the approval, the project must be completed within 17 years.

The utility had proposed a replacement program of 15-20 years in duration and MPUC staff had recommended a 12-year program.

Upon its takeover of Northern, Unitil inherited about 65 miles of cast iron and 10 miles of bare steel natural gas pipes in Portland and Westbrook. The original gas pipe systems were installed from the late 1800s to the early 1900s to carry manufactured coal gas. Most of the remaining cast iron pipes are more than 70 years old. The removal of the cast iron and bare steel materials and replacement with polyethylene plastic or protected steel pipe have been a focus of regulatory efforts to improve public safety since the late 1990s, MPUC said.

In 2004 MPUC approved a settlement agreement between Northern and the Office of the Public Advocate for a four-year replacement program in Lewiston and Auburn, ME, that removed 49 miles of cast iron pipe and cost approximately $15 million. Northern reported on the Lewiston-Auburn project and then filed a proposal at the MPUC for a similar replacement program in Portland and Westbrook.

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