Lancaster replacing its old natural gas pipelines

Source: Lancaster Eagle-Gazette

Lancaster Municipal Gas Co. officials said they think their approach to using risk analysis and a program of replacing 3 miles a year of antiquated pipeline in the city is helping to reduce the threat of future problems.

USA Today conducted a review of federal data showing there are tens of thousands of miles of cast iron and bare-steel gas mains beneath American cities and towns, despite those pipes being a longtime target of National Transportation Safety Board accident investigators, government regulators and safety advocates.

Lancaster Municipal Gas reported 12.5 percent of its pipes are the older bare metal variety, above the 7 percent national average. While the company reported no major incidents from its pipes in the past decade, it did report 20.11 hazardous leaks per 1,000 miles of pipe, which is below the national average of 35.

“We have approximately 28 miles left of the bare metal variety of pipeline,” said company General Manager Mike Pettit. “Our target for the last six years have been to replace approximately 3 miles of the lines each year. But some of this pipeline is OK, while 100 yards down the street, it might be pitted badly and need to be replaced.”

Kurt Waite, construction safety and regulatory compliance superintendent for the company, said the identification of which lines to replace is based on risk analysis.

There are three types of pipelines in Lancaster, Waite and Pettit said. The city has the older bare metal pipes, coated pipes and the new plastic pipes that can withstand higher pressure. The city has about 248 miles of natural gas pipelines and 15,600 customers.

Only two states have more miles of natural gas mains made from cast iron and bare steel than Ohio. The nearly 8,000 miles of cast iron and bare steel pipes make up about 14 percent of all mains across Ohio; that’s about twice the national average. About 46 percent of Ohio’s gas mains were installed before 1970, compared with almost 40 percent nationwide.

Over the last decade in Ohio, 26 people have been hurt and six people have been killed in 50 significant gas leak incidents reported to the federal government. The bulk of the old, metal gas mains are being operated by two companies: Columbia Gas operating in dozens of counties from the Ohio River to Lake Erie, and Dominion East, which serves the Cleveland region. In Lancaster and Fairfield County, the main natural gas companies are Columbia and Lancaster Municipal Gas.

State officials said they think the utilities are making progress in replacing those pipes. The Public Utilities Commission of Ohio recently required the state’s four major natural gas utilities to update older pipes with more modern protected steel and plastic lines. According to the state, Duke Energy, Columbia Gas, Dominion East and Vectren will spend more than $6 billion over the life of the project to replace more than 11,600 miles of pipe.

“The safe and reliable delivery of utility services is among the PUCO’s top priorities,” said commission spokesman Matthew Schilling. “The PUCO has found natural gas utilities’ infrastructure replacement programs to be in the public interest and is generally pleased with their progress in the replacement of old cast-iron and bare steel pipelines.”

Using geographic information system mapping, Lancaster Municipal Gas officials look at where the majority of their leaks are concentrated, then plan to replace pipes in those areas.

“We are actually have more problems with our risers more than the actual pipelines,” Pettit said.

The risers are the connectors that go from the line into the buildings.

“We’ve been replacing them at about 150 per year, with 2,100 left to replace,” Pettit said.

Such improvements come with a cost, which is typically passed on to consumers through a fee.

However, Pettit said the gas line replacement program in Lancaster has been achieved without raising the cost of gas to the customers in Lancaster or adding a surcharge.

“We’ve been trying to do it through our current revenue,” Pettit said.

For Columbia Gas, that fee was $4.71 per month last year and rose to $5.71 per month in 2014. Company spokesman Shane Cartmill said the rate will be similar over the next few years, and noted that the cost of the infrastructure replacement fee was more than offset by the drop in natural gas prices.

“The estimated bill for a typical customer dropped almost 40 percent from August 2008 to August 2014,” Cartmill said.

While Columbia Gas had 18 major gas incidents, which are self-reported, Cartmill said none were caused by corrosion of aging pipes. he said several of the pipe problems were caused by excavation damage by third-party companies. He said preventing such accidents is one of the company’s top safety priorities, which is why it runs public awareness campaigns reinforcing the importance of calling 811 before digging.

Columbia is expected to be completed with its pipe replacement project in roughly 20 years.

At replacing 3 miles a year, Lancaster Municipal Gas’ line replacement program, which started about six years ago, is expected to be done in around 10 years and will have cost about $25 million.