UGI Utilities Inc. was “unaware of any warning signs” prior to the deadly blast on its distribution system in Allentown, PA, in February 2011, the utility told the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC).

In a filing with the state PUC last Monday, the Reading, PA-based utility responded to a complaint leveled by the PUC’s Bureau of Investigation and Enforcement (I&E), which said UGI “did not adequately and timely respond to ample warning signs regarding the integrity of its cast-iron mains in the Allentown area, including several catastrophic explosions resulting from corroded/graphitized mains.”

The complaint, which the I&E filed in June, alleged that UGI failed to promptly and effectively respond to the gas leak and explosion on Feb. 9, 2011; had insufficient levels of natural gas odorant in its distribution system; failed to comply with federal and state regulations with respect to its natural gas odorant testing program; and failed to adequately and timely respond to “warning signs” regarding the integrity of its cast iron mains.

“UGI will review any additional proof that I&E may provide to support the assertions made in its complaint. In the interim, UGI is compelled to deny many of the factual and legal conclusions set forth in the complaint,” said UGI Utilities, a subsidiary of UGI Corp., in its response to the complaint. UGI provides gas and electric services to Pennsylvania and Maryland customers. “While UGI is denying certain of the assertions contained in the complaint, it does not deny the seriousness of the incident or the desirability of taking action to enhance its practices. In many instances, the actions UGI has already taken are consistent with the actions requested by I&E in the complaint.”

The explosion killed five people, injured one person, and destroyed or significantly damaged several houses (see see NGI, Feb. 14, 2011). The source of the natural gas that led to the explosion was a 12-inch diameter cast-iron main with a circumferential crack, according to the I&E complaint. The cast-iron main was installed in 1928.

“Despite the maintenance that was performed on the pipe and the excavation that occurred in the area surrounding the pipe, the cracked 12-inch cast-iron main was not considered by UGI to be a pipe in need of replacement under the criteria that UGI uses in its pipeline replacement program,” I&E said.

In its response, UGI said that “at the time of the incident, the 12-inch cast-iron main segment at issue here was not a candidate for immediate replacement.”

In addition to not replacing the main, “at no time did UGI receive calls complaining of the odor of gas in the hours [leading up] to the explosion,” the complaint said. “Natural gas is odorless and odorant is placed in natural gas so that the public is able to detect the presence of gas…[However] UGI did not perform tests to periodically assure that the proper concentrations of odorant were present throughout its system,” the complaint said. It further said the flow of natural gas continued for five hours after the explosion because “UGI was unable to immediately isolate the suspected source of the gas due to the lack of valves in [its] low pressure distribution system.”

I&E has asked the PUC to order UGI to pay a civil penalty of $386,000 and that the utility not be allowed to recover any portion of the amount through rates regulated by the commission.

The complaint cited two other failures on UGI’s distribution system in prior years. In August 1976, a gas explosion in Allentown — approximately a half mile from the site of the February 2011 blast — killed two firemen, injured 14 others and destroyed four buildings. In August 1990, a gas explosion from another of UGI’s cast-iron mains killed one person, injured nine (including two firefighters) and destroyed two row houses.

At the time, the National Transportation Safety Board warned UGI that “numerous factors…have contributed to the integrity reduction and failure of Allentown, PA’s cast-iron gas and water mains, most of which were installed in the late 1800s and early 1900s.”

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