By Chris Mosby
Jan 18, 2017
MENTOR, OH — Ohio Rural Natural Gas Co-op (ORNG) is being shut down following dozens of violations of state safety protocols, the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) says. PUCO has ordered ORNG to stop operating its system at Duck Creek Road and Ellsworth Road facilities. All operations are to be stopped by March 1, after ORNG helps customers find an alternative service.
Ohio Rural operates in Ashtabula, Geauga, Lake, Mahoning and Trumbull counties. According to a July 2016 PUCO report, the company is providing gas to at least 77 customers. In that report, the Utilities Commission outlines several complaints against ORNG’s safety standards.
PUCO has said ORNG will be allowed to return to operations once it has demonstrated it can follow safety protocols. As it is, ORNG had 37 violations over the course of 14 months. PUCO also says the company has repeatedly hired employees who have no experience or expertise in working on natural gas infrastructure.
“Safety is the utmost priority for the PUCO,” said PUCO Chairman Asim Z. Haque. “Shutting down the pipelines and requiring ORNG to remedy the situation is the appropriate course of action.”
A History of Negligence
That report alleges that ORNG first came on PUCO’s radar in February 2015 when reports rolled in that an unidentified company was attempting to install natural gas pipelines in the Newtown Falls area. PUCO was able to figure out that a company calling itself the Ohio Rural Natural Gas LLC (later Co-op) was behind the installation. That company was not registered with the state as a gas- distribution company. After speaking with PUCO, ORNG changed its name and got registered.
A series of violations then occurred between March and September 2015, most of them concerned the safe installation of natural gas infrastructure.
The situation got worse in early November 2015. ORNG allegedly cut an Orwell Natural Gas main in order to assume service to Tin Man Storage on Tin Man Road in Mentor. A metering and regulation station was installed, along with a distribution main that connected 44 service lines to 51 separate customer meters. However, ORNG did not contact Orwell Natural Gas and did not get its permission to cut the line. ORNG also did not tell Tin Man Storage it was assuming control of that gas line and were thus changing the provider of the natural gas.
When PUCO staff investigated at Tin Man Storage, it found the meter had been installed improperly. Additionally, there was no pressure-sensing line, access to emergency shutoff valves was not secured and pressure testing of newly installed mains, services and meter settings was not performed. PUCO also found the people installing this piping and setup from ORNG were unqualified.
Things got worse at Tin Man Storage at the end of November. The company called 911 after it detected a natural gas leak. The Mentor Fire Department contacted Orwell Natural Gas, who contacted PUCO. Orwell didn’t know that someone had changed out the piping and became the natural gas provider for Tin Man.
A representative from ORNG showed up an hour after being called and came to the scene without leak-detecting equipment and no idea of how to detect a natural gas leak. It was then discovered by PUCO that 30 meters of piping had been installed without safety gaskets recommended by the manufacturers.
Those leaks led to the City of Mentor cutting service to Tin Man Storage until safe piping could be installed. The repairs were finally made between Dec. 3 and Dec. 11 under PUCO supervision.
Things did not get better in 2016, according to PUCO. According to a Jan. 18 report, in May 2016, PUCO investigators found ORNG violating 21 different protocols.
Finally, in July, PUCO staff issued the death knell. In the report, PUCO writes, “Staff concludes that ORNG is currently operating its natural gas pipeline system in a manner that potentially threatens human life and property.”
In response to that report, PUCO wrote, “ORNG is ordered to cease all operations, including connecting new customers, until it can demonstrate compliance with the law and organizational knowledge of gas pipeline regulations.”
The Jan. 18 report also recommends a $600,000 fine be levied against ORNG.
The Ohio Natural Gas Co-op did not return Patch’s request for comment.