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Philadelphia natural gas pipe system ‘at risk’ for tragedy, PUC chief says

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Almost half of Philadelphia’s natural gas distribution system is considered “at risk” for a tragedy, and the 80 years estimated to replace the worst pipelines is too long, the chairman of the state Public Utility Commission said Monday.

The risk the Philadelphia Gas Works system poses to public safety prompted PUC Chairman Robert Powelson to order an “in-depth” review of PGW’s integrity and the utility’s replacement timeline. The largest municipal-owned system in the nation includes about 1,500 miles of cast iron gas pipes, some of which date to the 1800s, making it one of the oldest and leakiest gas distribution systems in the country, according to federal data.

Philadelphia residents are “threatened by at-risk pipelines and an alarmingly slow replacement schedule,” Powelson said Monday in a statement announcing the review. “We will take an in-depth look at PGW and determine what may be done to accelerate this process and avoid tragic accidents, while at the same time being mindful of how much of a burden ratepayers can bear” to fund replacement work.

The state allows gas utilities to increase customers’ bills by up to 5 percent to pay for accelerated infrastructure replacement.

Iron and bare, unprotected steel are the pipeline materials most prone to corrosion. They account for most leaks in gas distribution networks across the country, according to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

Columbia Gas of Pennsylvania and Peoples Natural Gas Co., the largest Western Pennsylvania gas utilities, plan to remove the last of their iron and bare steel pipe by 2029 and 2031, respectively, according to filings with the state.

PGW expects to remove the last of the at-risk pipeline in 2100 — the longest timeline of any Pennsylvania gas utility. The state utility commission estimates it costs about $1.4 million to replace a mile of pipeline in Philadelphia.

Pennsylvania likely will deal with this expensive problem for the rest of this century, a Tribune-Review investigative series, “The Invisible Threat,” has reported.

Columbia Gas this week will begin a $1.1 million project to replace lines in Pittsburgh’s South Side that have been in use since the late 1800s. The project involves replacing more than a mile of wrought iron and bare steel pipeline.

“It’s served us well for a long time, but at this point, it’s costing more to maintain it than to replace it,” said spokeswoman Brynnly Schwartz said.

Columbia’s project is part of $144 million the company expects to spend this year replacing underground infrastructure. Since 2007, it’s spent $685 million to replace 620 miles of pipeline, the company said.

The South Side project will include service and traffic disruptions along Sarah, Jane and East Carson streets, Wrights Way, and 22nd, 24th, 25th and 26th streets. Work will take place on weekdays between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. until early summer.

“We are working closely with the city of Pittsburgh to ensure inconvenience is minimized. We appreciate the community’s patience as this important work is completed,” said Nicole Giunta, the company’s construction leader.

Accidents involving distribution pipeline — the lines that carry gas from utilities to homes and businesses — killed more than 120 people and caused more than $775 million in damage since 2004, the Trib investigative series found.

Philadelphia Gas Works employee Mark Keeley died in 2011 in a gas explosion that happened when he was responding to reports of a leak. He was 19.

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