Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission to take safety role in State College pipeline project

The role of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission is safety, according to its vice chairman and, as is standard, crews will inspect a planned natural gas pipeline through State College during and after construction.

John Coleman Jr. told the Centre Daily Times on Monday that PUC inspectors have seen the project plans and will review the materials to be used and the crews installing the lines. He said the PUC will ensure construction takes place according to state and federal specifications.

“It’s the perfect opportunity to be able to monitor the construction activities,” he said, noting that becomes more difficult once a line is buried.

The pipeline in question is a 12-inch, 400 pounds-per-square-inch, Columbia Gas distribution line that will travel from near Porter Road, about two miles along Bellaire and Prospect avenues and South Burrowes Street. It will end at Penn State’s West Campus steam plant, which is converting from coal to natural gas to meet new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency air pollution standards.

Residents have expressed outrage over the pipeline’s route, organizing at least one community meeting, considering legal action, and appearing at a Borough Council meeting last month, spending an hour expressing opposition to the project.

Columbia officials said they considered various pipeline routes, avoiding campus because of the high number of underground utilities already in place. Fewer underground lines exist through the borough, reducing the chance of the new line being struck if crews must dig in the street. Coleman noted the PUC doesn’t “have a dog in this fight, as far as location.”

The borough rearranged the council’s regular meeting schedule Monday night so that the pipeline project would be the subject of a work session, allowing presentations from Columbia Gas, Penn State and the Highlands Civic Association. PUC press secretary Jennifer Kocher also planned to attend.

Coleman confirmed that, as a state-regulated utility, Columbia has the right to construct a pipeline in the public right of way, because the company already operates in Centre County. Columbia has applied to the borough for a permit to run the line, and that permit is pending.

Columbia also reported the project to the PUC in February, because it will cost more than $300,000. The project will cost $12 million total — $9 million during pipeline installation this summer and $3 million next summer, when the utility will repave the borough streets.

Coleman said two natural gas “tragedies” have placed Pennsylvania on the map, but such occurrences are a nationwide trend.

A natural gas leak in Allentown ignited in early 2011, exploding and killing five. According to the Allentown Morning Call, the gas leaked from a cast-iron distribution line, destroying half a city block. UGI Utilities operated that line.

Also in early 2011, an explosion outside Philadelphia resulted in the death of a Philadelphia Gas Works employee and injured five other utility workers.

In the latter case, the PUC has alleged that PGW failed to follow the proper procedures after receiving notification of the natural gas leak that led to the explosion.

In State College, pipes have leaked, but not led to explosions, as far as Public Works Director Mark Whitfield knows. Most recently, a leak in a 4-inch, bare steel line under Park Avenue was discovered early Sunday morning, resulting in the evacuation of 10 people as a precaution.

The line was repaired, the street reopened, and the evacuees allowed to return by late Sunday afternoon, according to Columbia spokesman Russell Bedell. He said the cause of the leak was pipe corrosion, of the aged line, dated to 1963.

That aging infrastructure is a $12 billion problem in Pennsylvania, Coleman said.

“It’s been a cast-iron issue,” as well as bare steel, he said. Ground freezing and thawing causes cracks in 50-year-old pipes.

In response, Bedell said Columbia is spending $140 million in Pennsylvania in 2013 to replace older pipes. He wasn’t sure Monday if any of those will take place in the State College area.

Coincidentally, as Monday kicked off National Safe Digging Month, Coleman said an even greater problem is the 6,500 hits each year to all utility lines, across Pennsylvania, when contractors dig carelessly or utility lines aren’t mapped properly.

“The goal is really focused on changing behavior,” he said.

The PUC hopes to take over enforcement of those law violations — requiring state legislative action — from the state Department of Labor and Industry, making sure violations are given when someone doesn’t call 811, the free service that marks utility lines before construction to guard against carelessness or faulty mapping.

As part of the preparation for Monday night’s council meeting, the borough received a third-party analysis of the pipeline project by Wood Group Mustang, an engineering firm based in Houston.

That report notes that statistics from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration show that third-party damage is “by far the most likely safety risk to buried pipelines.”