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PSC: Gas companies must hike safety efforts

Thursday, February 20, 2014
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— State regulators are calling on utility companies to kick safety efforts into high gear with a request for risk assessments in the gas distribution system.

The state Public Service Commission on Thursday set a six-month deadline for utilities to issue a report assessing risks in and around their gas pipes and to bolster efforts to get residents to report the smell of gas as soon as possible.

“The commission takes its responsibility to ensure that customers receive safe and adequate utility service very seriously,” said PSC chairperson Audrey Zibelman in a news release.

“We can’t stress enough the importance of educating the public on the need to call their utility if they detect the odor of natural gas.”

The agency is asking utilities to come up with “creative ways” to remind residents they can head off disasters by contacting gas companies any time they smell gas.

Natural gas is actually odorless, but it’s infused with an odor like rotten eggs to make sure people can smell it.

The renewed safety effort follows the agency’s review of a natural gas explosion that took place outside Elmira in Horseheads, Chemung County, in 2011. A child was killed when the home was leveled. Two other occupants suffered serious injuries in the Jan. 26, 2011 blast.

Investigators are eyeing work that unknown contractors did around the home’s existing natural gas piping. It’s believed the piping was damaged during that work and ultimately failed.

New York State Electric and Gas’s investigation into the explosion led to important lessons, company spokesman Clay Ellis said in an email Thursday. “We will never forget the tragic incident that occurred on Joseph Street, and we continue to sympathize with all of those who were affected by it. At the same time, it is important that we learn from this incident,” Ellis said.

The company is emphasizing partnerships with excavators as key in preventing third-party damage and is trying to eliminate damage by contractors completely.

“Our shared goal for third-party damage should be zero. Further, it is critical for anyone who smells natural gas to contact their utility so the matter can be investigated and appropriately addressed,” Ellis said.

Third-party work near gas pipes was cited following unrelated leaks and explosions of the Enterprise Products pipeline, an 8-inch main that transports propane under pressure through Schoharie County.

That pipeline leaked in Gilboa in 2010, forcing the evacuation of a three-mile radius, about six years after it blew up south of Schoharie County, leveling a home.

The same pipeline exploded in North Blenheim in 1990, killing two people and destroying several buildings.

National Grid spokesman Patrick Stella said in an email Thursday the utility puts a priority on reacting to reports of the smell of gas.

“National Grid works closely with Dig Safely NY and always urges all customers to call 811 before beginning a project that involves digging to make sure known utility lines and pipes are properly marked,” Stella said.

Customers are asked to call 1-800-892-2345 any time they smell gas, Stella said.

Crews are dispatched immediately when the utility gets such a report, he said.

As of 2012, the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration counted a total of 53,624 miles of gas pipelines beneath the ground in New York state.

That figure includes hazardous liquid lines, like pressurized propane, as well as gas transmission and gas gathering lines.

Distribution lines total 47,880 miles, not including the pipes between the road and people’s homes — roughly 3.18 million connections.

While utilities study the risks, the state’s Public Service Commission is emphasizing the role citizens can play in preventing gas-leak tragedies.

The PSC on Thursday, outlined several “signs of gas leaks” that should prompt residents to call their utility or authorities:

-- Natural gas is scentless but an odorant that smells like rotten eggs is added to make sure people can smell it. Utility companies can provide an “odorant card” people can use to get acquainted with the smell.

-- Bubbles in standing water, dirt or debris blowing into the air or dead vegetation around gas piping can all signal leakage.

--Sounds like hissing, whistling or roaring may indicate a gas leak.

In the event of a possible gas leak, residents are urged to get out of the building, leave the door open and call the utility company. It’s important to avoid using anything that could create a spark, such as a match, appliances and lights, mobile phones, doorbells and a car starter.

 
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