OCC Asks PUCO for Columbia Gas Safety Guarantees in Wake of Massachusetts Explosions

In the wake of Columbia Gas’s deadly explosions in Massachusetts, the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel (OCC) is asking the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) to order the utility to state whether the disaster has revealed similar risks to Columbia’s 1.3 million customers. OCC says the company’s recent annual pipeline safety reports violate the commission’s own directives, and it wants PUCO to require Columbia to refile the 2017 report with a supplement explaining safety conditions in Ohio.

Pending those filings and commission approval, the consumers’ counsel is further asking PUCO to deny the utility’s request to charge customers $25 million for pipeline safety.

“The recent catastrophic events in Massachusetts made national news and vividly depict just how important pipeline safety is for natural gas customers,” OCC says in a 25-page brief that lays out PUCO staff findings and commission safety directives to Columbia dating back to 2014.

“For the third straight year, Columbia’s reporting is not in compliance with the PUCO’s directives -- and it is overdue for the PUCO to obtain Columbia’s compliance. …” the consumers’ counsel states. “Columbia’s 2017 Annual Report, much like its 2015 and 2016 annual reports, lacks specificity, transparency and verifiable performance metrics and, consequently, fails to comply with significant parts of the PUCO order.”

OCC notes that as recently as Aug. 29, PUCO staff once again signed off on the annual report in a single, summary paragraph:

“Staff has reviewed Columbia's annual report and accompanying attachments that were filed in this case and has no objection to the information contained in the report. As a result, the staff recommends that the commission accept Columbia's annual report as filed,” the recommendation states, clarifying that staff do not necessarily support future charges for the company’s pipeline safety program (PSP).

The consumers’ counsel says PUCO’s 2014 order required Columbia to include specific safety compliance metrics reportedly lacking in its 2015, 2016 and 2017 reports.

“Staff’s review did not mention any of the performance benchmarks, meetings held or discuss any of the other measurements established in the order,” OCC says, pointing to specific metrics for Columbia’s Advanced Workforce Training Initiative, Damage Prevention and Technology Initiative, Enhanced Public Awareness Initiative, and Cross Bore Safety and Remediation Initiative, the latter addressing the intersection of two underground utilities that compromises structural integrity.

“Columbia states that with a more comprehensive training program, new hires are better able to maintain Columbia’s system, which will reduce incidents and other safety hazards. However, Columbia did not develop the required specific performance measures or establish the required baseline performance measurements so that alleged risk reduction can be tracked. It also violated the PUCO order by failing to quantify the initiative’s progress toward reducing risks to the system,” says OCC.

It highlights a chart in the company’s 2017 report showing the “public is learning more” about natural gas awareness, including knowledge of the 8-1-1 call-before-you-dig number.

“A better indicator of progress would be annual data showing the number of people that have actually used the 8-1-1 call-before-you-dig number, the number of people that were injured due to excavation without calling the 8-1-1 call-before-you-dig number, and/or the amount of property damage due to excavation without calling 8-1-1 call-before-you-dig. …” OCC says. “Simply polling the public’s awareness of the 8-1-1 number does not demonstrate the initiative’s success.”

Despite Columbia’s representations around safety awareness, the consumers’ counsel says the number of excavators expressing knowledge of dig risks actually fell from 75 percent in 2017 to 54 percent in 2018.

“Recent tragic events in Massachusetts underscore the importance of pipeline safety for the public,” OCC concludes. “The PUCO should require Columbia, as it progresses with its review, analysis and safety efforts in Massachusetts, to supplement its annual report on its Ohio pipeline safety program. The PUCO’s requirement should include that, as soon as information is available, Columbia should file to advise the PUCO and parties in this case if the circumstance in Massachusetts has revealed any risk for Columbia’s system and service to Ohio consumers.”

Since the Sept. 13 explosions in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover, the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities has announced itis hiring an independent evaluator to conduct a statewide safety assessment of the state’s natural gas distribution system. Gov. Charlie Baker has asked another gas utility to handle system restoration instead of Columbia.

Story originally published in The Hannah Report on October 4, 2018.  Copyright 2018 Hannah News Service, Inc.