A dispute may be in the pipeline between state, Xcel

The Minnesota Office of Pipeline Safety, the state agency investigating a gas explosion that blew up a St. Paul home, is growing frustrated with Xcel Energy and says the company could be doing a better job pulling together documents for the investigation and working to solve the problem that caused the explosion.

On Feb. 1, a sewer cleaner hit a natural gas line that was inadvertently run through an underground waste pipe, causing the gas to leak into the basement of the home, located in St. Paul’s Highland Park neighborhood.

At a community meeting earlier this month in the neighborhood of the explosion, Xcel presented a plan to inspect 50,000 sewer pipes in the state over the next three years for additional “crossbore” intersections between gas and sewer pipes.

State Fire Marshall Jerry Rosendahl, the director of pipeline safety for the OPS, said Xcel has met the deadlines imposed by his office to date, but there is room for improvement.

Rosendahl wants Xcel to finish the work in one year and noted the power company told the state in 2003 that it had located all the crossbore “conflicts” and that the problem had been fixed. He said both the OPS and Xcel knew about the problems that could happen at the conflicts, but the OPS trusted Xcel when the company told inspectors that it had found all the problem spots.

“Based on what Xcel provided us … we looked at the records and closed the case,” Rosendahl said. “We now know through this incident that this problem hasn’t been fixed.”

Steve Roalstad, an Xcel spokesperson, disputes some of the OPS’ assertions and said the company is working to complete the mapping as quickly as possible.

“I don’t know if we ever said we found all of [the conflicts],” he said. “We said we had a system in place that was an effective way to find them if the problem arose.”

He said the Highland Park neighborhood was “outside of the study area” that Xcel looked at for conflicts between gas and sewer in the early 2000s. When asked why it wasn’t in the study area, Roalstad replied, “It is now.”

Furthering compounding the tension between Xcel and the OPS is what Rosendahl alleges are questionable safety procedures on Xcel’s part. Rosendahl said that Xcel found additional conflicts between sewer and gas pipes between 2003 and 2010 and did not report them to the state. He said that failure on Xcel’s part plays a “factor in how positive I am of them and what they’ve done. There are other factors too like our ability to get some of the information. They could be doing better.”

Roalstad said he was not familiar with the cases to which Rosendahl referred.

 Plan under review

The OPS is in the process of reviewing Xcel’s plan and will issue a response in a week or two, Rosendahl said. The OPS already notified Xcel of a “violation” under pipeline safety rules with a proposed fine of $1 million. Xcel can challenge that figure, but so far attorneys on both sides are not involved.

“I don’t know if [going through the courts] will be required,” Roalstad said. “It’s too soon to say. Right now our focus is on getting this plan approved with the OPS and to get going on this project.”

He said Xcel doesn’t know yet how much the scoping project could cost. Some industry experts say it could cost between $6 million and $10 million.

 More to come?

The state penalty is likely not the last legal action against Xcel stemming from the home explosion. Rosendahl said there is no question Xcel is responsible for the gas leak that lead to the explosion. The homeowner, or the homeowner’s insurance company, will most likely being going after the utility company for damages and the cost of the house.

Inver Grove Heights attorney Greg McEwen, whose practice includes home explosion cases, said utility companies fight tooth and nail to protect themselves from liability in home explosion cases and most settle.

McEwen, who is not involved in the St. Paul case, said that such incidents are too common and simple steps can be taken to prevent them. He said homeowners can buy an electronic detector that warns of a natural gas leak. The detectors, which would give people time to call the gas company and get out of the house to escape injury, cost about $35 and are easy to obtain.

McEwen said that natural gas industry executives know about the detectors, but they don’t encourage their workers to talk to homeowners about them.

“There is a real disconnect between the executives and the safety people who actually go out to the houses,” he said. “The workers aren’t aware of the safety products their own company recommends. And I don’t know why. [The detectors] are a cheap remedy to save lives.”

 Maximizing public safety

Rosendahl said he is sympathetic to the people who want more enforcement from his office and a stronger guarantee from Xcel that the company has fixed the problem. And he admits it is disheartening that it is rate payers who will likely wind up paying any fines against Xcel and for the cost of checking the sewer pipes. He said the first priority is to make sure that a similar explosion never happens again.

“That’s the question we’ve been asking ourselves since [the explosion],” Rosendahl said. “How do you make this 100 percent? In order to do that you’d have to scope every single sewer line in Minnesota. We’ve got to figure out how do we achieve public safety to the maximum extent possible. We are working toward that.”

Minnesota Star Tribune – March 22, 2012 – By Patrick Thornton

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